Most of the nation’s public lands are managed with a multiple use ethic that allows their managers – primarily the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management – to consider a wide range of demands and resources when determining how those lands should be used. Underlying those decisions is the public participation built in to all land-management decisions. On paper at least, this system allows for public land use appropriate to the region, resources and ecosystems of each parcel or section in question. Sometimes that is drilling for gas; in other situations it is off-road vehicle use or hiking, biking and camping. Still other parcels require more careful management to protect archaeological or biological frailties including endangered species or crumbling artifacts.
The point is, the range of scenarios and demands is broad and unique to each region and should be considered as such. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, has another idea. His bill, the Planning for American Energy Act, would place energy at the top of the list of priorities for public lands by requiring land managers to map out a plan, every four years, for increasing energy production on federal lands. Tipton justifies his measure by saying that the nation has paid lip service to increasing domestic energy production but has failed to deliver on the promise.
“For far too long, we’ve talked about an all-of-the-above energy strategy for this country. This legislation literally calls for that at a time when we need to be able to establish American energy on American soil to put Americans back to work and create American energy security,” Tipton said at a hearing on Wednesday.
While he may be right about the country’s energy and employment needs, Tipton oversteps by placing energy development at the top of the management priority heap. Doing so skews any notion of balance, to say nothing of the fact that insisting the plans come every four years is unrealistically optimistic given the pace land management decisions typically follow – the Forest Service has been working on an updated management plan for the San Juan National Forest since 2004, and it is still not quite final.
Furthermore, as critics of the measure rightly point out, energy leasing and production on public lands have increased in recent years, and many leases are sitting unused as gas and oil producers wait for energy prices to rise.
While energy production is appropriate for many of the nation’s public lands, it should not be presumed to be the best and highest use for all of them. Codifying such a premise in legislation is not the appropriate means by which to make management decisions. Tipton’s bill, which passed a House committee on Wednesday, is sure to go nowhere in the U.S. Senate should it pass the House, and he surely must know that. Still, the mentality that informs such measures is not helpful to ensuring balanced and careful land management, nor does it accurately reflect the energy production landscape in the United States.