Creating a Vision to Match the Scenery of Our Public Lands

On several occasions over the past few years, Park Rangers for Our Lands has called on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to do a better job of balancing energy development with the protection of our national parks and neighboring public lands. As a former park superintendent and ranger, I know that most visitors do not distinguish between what lies within national parks and what lies without. Take a drive to Moab, Utah, home of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, or Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado - without an entrance or boundary sign, can you tell where national parks end and the BLM lands begin? Probably not - and I can hardly blame you. The world-class scenery is the same, and so are the pristine night skies. And the elk, mule deer and other wildlife that so many visitors come to see? They tend not to care about the artificial boundaries, either.

That's why I'm very pleased with the progress that the BLM is making. Over the past two weeks, the BLM has finalized a "master leasing plan" (MLP) for the remote, wildlife-rich public lands around Dinosaur National Monument and proposed another for the magnificent canyon country that surrounds Arches and Canyonlands. MLPs are designed to strike a balance between conserving important resources - like national parks and the scenic lands that often surround them - and oil and gas development. With the MLPs just announced, I think BLM comes very near to hitting that elusive mark. Both plans recognize the importance of being a good neighbor and include measures to guide oil and gas development away from national parks - to locations where industry can drill without blemishing night skies or world-class scenery. The MLPs also ensure that the right conversations happen with the National Park Service before development moves forward. Finally, I think both MLPs do a good job of recognizing and responding to the needs of local communities, which have become increasingly dependent on tourist dollars and visitation to the national parks.

Are the MLPs perfect? No. They would still allow drilling in places that should probably stay undeveloped - because they border a national park or popular hiking and mountain biking trails. But are the MLPs a strong step in the right direction? In my opinion, yes. The BLM has come a long way - it was only a few years ago that through a process often byzantine and obscure, at least to most members of the public, the agency leased thousands of acres on the doorstep of Arches and Canyonlands national parks for oil and gas drilling. The BLM's effort to use MLPs should be commended. These MLPs, which were created through an open public process and with the input of key stakeholders, like the National Park Service, should help avoid future conflicts with the protection of our national parks, while providing far greater certainty for all industries and users of our public lands.

But the job's not finished. For Moab, the BLM must continue to work diligently on the MLP, with an eye to finishing that plan sometime next summer. If any place is in need of a management plan to match its scenery (to paraphrase Wallace Stegner), it's Moab. On a broader scale, the BLM must continue to embrace MLPs and the spirit of the oil and gas leasing reforms it announced in 2010. There are other places, including around Mesa Verde National Park, where the BLM can use MLPs as a means of broadening public discourse over where, how and when oil and gas development should happen.

In the challenge to find the right balance in planning for the future of our public lands, we might remember that part of the Hippocratic oath first written nearly 2,500 years ago. First, do no harm.