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The federal government owns almost half the land west of the Mississippi. Strict rules apply to some areas including those designated as Wilderness and National Parks. But on hundreds of millions of acres of federal land, the interests of ranchers, conservationists, energy companies, off–road vehicle enthusiasts and others can, and often do, collide. Despite the discredited claims of rancher Cliven Bundy, his refusal to pay grazing fees exposed some of the many challenges of managing public land for the common good. Please join us to discuss competing claims for access and use of federal lands.
- Kathleen Sgamma vice president of government and public affairs, Western Energy Alliance.
- Reid Wilson staff writer, The Washington Post; he writes The Post's new political tipsheet email called "Read In."
- Daniel Weiss director of climate strategy, Center for American Progress.
- Neil Kornze director, Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out with a cold. The federal government owns approximately one of every two acres in the West. Uses tightly restricted in some areas, but on a significant percentage of this land, ranching, drilling logging and other activities are allowed. Joining me in the studio to talk about who gets to do what on federally managed lands is Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress and Reid Wilson of The Washington Post. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DANIEL WEISSThanks for having me.
MR. REID WILSONThanks for having me.
PAGEAnd joining us by phone from Denver, Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance. Thank you for being with us, Kathleen.
MS. KATHLEEN SGAMMAMy pleasure.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. First, joining us by phone is Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior. Mr. Kornze, thanks for being with us.
MR. NEIL KORNZEIt's a pleasure to be with you, Susan.
PAGEYou were confirmed, I think, just last month by the Senate to take this role so congratulations for that.
PAGEAnd you were immediately in a big controversy with this rancher, Cliven Bundy, and I wonder if you could just bring us up-to-date on where that dispute stands.
KORNZEYou bet. Well, I think the context is important. We have 16,000 ranchers across the country that work with the Bureau of Land Management and have permits to graze on the public lands. Mr. Bundy had a permit and the maximum number of cows he was every allowed was about 150. He stopped paying his fees in 1993 and as a result, he lost his permit.
KORNZEUnfortunately, he never removed his cattle and now there are over 900 cows out there. So we have -- there have been three different federal different court orders telling Mr. Bundy to remove his cows. He has ignored all of those and those same court orders directed the BLM to seize and impound those cows if he did not.
KORNZESo that was the operation we were doing last month. At this point, some folks did break the law and so we are -- I can't say a lot because there's an active investigation going on, but we are working hard to insure that those who did break the law are held accountable.
PAGESo you've pulled back the threat of kind of violent confrontation. That's been pulled back a bit. You're pursuing the legal procedures now?
KORNZEWe are. We're going to work through the legal system.
PAGEAnd another issue that I know has been very important to public lands to some of the states that have so much public land on it is this issue of designating the sage grouse as an endangered species. Now, I know that isn't done by your agency, but what do you think is ahead on that issue?
KORNZEWell, the sage grouse is a species that the amount of range that that bird is on has shrunk considerably and also the number of birds has shrunk. So the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is one of the sister agencies here at the Department of the Interior has indicated that more conservation needs to take place in order to potentially keep that bird off the endangered species list.
KORNZESo we're working very closely with western states, with governors, with local communities to look at what we need to do on public lands, on lands managed for the public by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service and also, you know, open questions about what needs to be done on private lands around the West with the goal being to have the most flexible system in place to protect existing uses like energy development and ranching and clean energy and things like that.
PAGEAre you concerned that if the sage grouse is designated as an endangered species that it's going to really have a serious impact on the economy of some states and on the ability to have these energy explorations going on on these public lands?
KORNZEWell, I'll tell you, there are endangered species out there on the public lands right now so it is possible to continue working, even if there's a designation, but it will have an impact and it will make things more complicated. The Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, would have to play a much larger role in evaluating individual project proposals.
PAGEDo you have a view yourself on whether it should be designated an endangered species or whether there should be -- I know there's been some efforts by some states to work to preserve the sage grouse short of endangered species designation. Do you have a view on that?
KORNZESo that all goes back to the science and the Fish and Wildlife Service director will ultimately make that call.
PAGEOkay. And finally, when you look at all the issues that you face as director of the Bureau of Land Management, what's of the most concern to you? What are you watching? What would be a smart thing for us to be paying attention to?
KORNZEWell, I tell you that the Bureau of Land Management is an amazing organization with some of the hardest-working, most creative employees in government. And our job is to find balance so we work a broad range of issues, things that folks want to keep an eye on are, you know, energy development. We help insure that there's robust, but responsible oil and gas development. We're helping to find the right places to place clean energy like solar, wind, geothermal.
KORNZEWe also, as you see in the sage grouse issue, we have very important wildlife habitat all across the country, particularly in the West. Wild horses boroughs is a real challenge. Those animals, it's the only animal that the agency is responsible for managing and those herds double in size every three years if left untouched. And then, one of the basic issues that the agency deals with is there's a very broad range of views out there.
KORNZESo some people see the public lands as America's greatest idea. Others see it as a very near reminder of a federal government that they have a lot of questions about, a lot of skepticism of. So at the Bureau of Land Management, we focus on making sure that we have an open door and that we're talking all sides of the issues.
PAGEAll right. Neil Kornze, thank you so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
KORNZEThank you very much.
PAGENeil Kornze, he is director of the Bureau of Land Management. Reid Wilson, anything strike you from his comments?
WILSONWell, he mentioned the interplay between the states and federal government and this really is what this entire conversation is about. This is one particular animal, the sage grouse. It's a very funny-looking bird that gathers on very specific areas called leks to do their mating dances and they range over about 165 million acres out West, over 11 states, everywhere from California to Wyoming to the Dakotas into Washington State.
WILSONAnd if this decision is made, if the Fish and Wildlife Service decides that they are threatened -- they're not going to be called endangered. They'll be called threatened, which is one step into the Endangered Species Act, that, as he said, the use of all of that land will become a lot more complicated. Now, it's not like they put up fences and nobody can go in there, but anybody who wants to graze on the land or develop new energy sources, whether its solar or wind or drilling and mining, anything like that, is going to have to go through a serious number of permit processes.
WILSONAnd in my conversations with state officials all over these 11 states over the last couple of weeks, they're absolutely panicked because there are literally billions of dollars in economic activity at stake. Meanwhile, the environmentalists are very concerned that there's this whole huge swath of western land that's going away, disappearing.
PAGEKathleen Sgamma, you know, I think to a lot of our listeners, the Bureau of Land Management's not at the top of their -- the things they pay attention to. Neil Kornze may not be a household name for many of them. But if you're out West, that is a really powerful federal agency. Tell us about that.
SGAMMAWell, that's absolutely true. BLM manages about 245 million surface acres. They also manage a federal mineral estate and that is potential oil and gas mineral rights on about 700 million acres of public land, most of which is in the West and Alaska. And so they control about 50 percent of land in the West. Depending on what state you're in, it can range from kind of a low of about 30 percent in Montana and Washington to about 84 percent in Nevada, 65 percent in Utah, I believe.
SGAMMASo in some states, it's very dominant. And unlike states in the East, which were given most of their territory, the federal government retained lands in the West and as a result, states don't have as much autonomy in the West as they do in the East and that creates quite a bit of conflict.
PAGEAnd when you think about this issue of whether to designate the sage grouse as a threatened species, how seriously do you view that? How much concern do you have about that?
SGAMMAWell, quite a bit of concern. We see a bird that has stable populations at about half a million, ranging across 11 states. Economic impact, potentially, upwards of 31 -- sorry, I forgot the number right off the top of my head. Quite significant economic impact and, you know, job impact as well. Here, I got the number, about 5.6 billion in economic impact. Potentially 30,000 jobs could be lost across the West in a range of different industries, agriculture, mining, oil and gas, wind, solar.
SGAMMASo it, you know, it is a very serious issue and that's why you see governors, both Democrats and Republicans, pushing back on the federal government and joining together to say, you know what, we can manage this species better at the state and local level than a one-size-fits-all federal approach.
PAGESo Daniel Weiss, what's your perspective on this?
WEISSWell, first, the most important thing is we have to follow the science, okay? That's what the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to do. Second, I think the goal of BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service is to work with the state and citizens and other interests to make sure that we can provide adequate habitat for the sage grouse so that it doesn't become a threatened species as the science indicates it may.
WEISSThat may require, for example, setting aside some high priority habitat areas to, you know, make sure that there's not disruptive uses of those places. We need to work closely with the local governments to address local threats and we've got to have some flexibility. Now, from what I understand, there's some states that are doing a really good job in working with the feds. Others, not so much.
WEISSAnd I think we need to get them together to develop a plan to prevent this from happening.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll open up the phones. We'll take some of your calls. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Reid Wilson, a staff writer with the Washington Post and Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. And joining us by phone, Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, which is based in Denver.
PAGENow Reid, you have a story that was posted yesterday on the Washington Post website where you went to Mineral County, Nevada and you saw these very peculiar sounding birds. What did you see?
WILSONThey are a funny looking bird. They are -- the males are big and demonstrative, if you will. They show off to attract mates.
WEISSSort of like us.
WILSONYeah, right, exactly. But they live in these things called leks, or they live around the leks which are sort of mating habitats that they come to very early in the morning. And let me tell you, Nevada has this reputation for being hot but at 5:00 in the morning when the sun is just breaking the horizon it can be very, very cold in the high desert.
WILSONAnd the whole debate over this, the reason I wanted to go see them, is because they are such a big part of the western landscape. I mean, these -- as Kathleen brought up, there are only about 500,000 of them but they range over 160 million acres all across the west. And in the late part of the '90s, 1999, the first folks -- the first environmentalists started petitioning the department of the Interior to list them as threatened or endangered species.
WILSONThe Department decided to list them, then decided that they didn't merit listing. They got sued by a number of environmental groups and the court cases have gone on and on and on. And now the courts have required the department to make this decision one way or the other by a certain point. They're sort of -- it gets a little confusing here but there are three different birds that we're actually talking about.
WILSONThere's the bi-state population, which is in Nevada and California. You're laughing at me already, I know. There's the Gunnison which is -- which ranges over Colorado and Utah. And then the greater sage grouse is the bigger picture and that ranges over all 11 states. And these birds are -- the decision points are coming over the next about a year-and-a-half. The final decision looks like at the moment it's slated for September of 2015.
WILSONAnd if that -- if they are listed as threatened, that means a whole lot of problems for anybody who wants to develop land in the west, or it could mean if they're not listed as threatened, a whole lot of problems for the species itself.
PAGEKathleen, I think some groups assume that the decision is all but made to designate it as threatened. Is that your view?
SGAMMAI believe so. You know, we, as an organization, have had to file three different FOIA lawsuits, Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, to just try to get some information out of BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service, just to find out what they're doing with the science. And we found that they're using science very selectively. So they're picking and choosing what type of science they're going to look at. They're ignoring things that don't fit in with the narrative that they're trying to pursue.
SGAMMAAnd so we're trying to challenge them on that. But they haven't been forthcoming, which makes me wonder, what are they trying to hide? Why are they moving forward with the listing based on selective science when they're pretty much ignoring what's happening in the west. Over the last decade, and this is from the Western Governors Association, states have spent over $145 million protecting the species.
SGAMMAThere are different on-the-ground state-led efforts to protect the species. And a one-size-fits-all federal approach coming in is not going to be in the interest of the species, nor of the west where, you know, we already have that excessive government control on federal lands, but not coming in with the species designation over such a wide range of land really bodes ill for the economies in the west.
WEISSWell, first it's important to note that these public lands belong to all Americans. They're designed to be used for multiple use and sustainable yield. That's what the law says. And they're designed to benefit all Americans, not just big oil companies. And so it's important we remember that's the context that we're talking about. These lands don't belong to the oil companies, even though they may lease them to produce oil.
WEISSSecond, as I understand it, this process has been more open than many other in the past and they're trying to work as closely as they can with states to design something to avoid the outcome that Ms. Sgamma is concerned about. And the states themselves have been working very closely with the federal government. The governor's bi-partisan group of governors have put together a taskforce to begin working on a lot of conservation plans within the states.
WEISSSo Nevada has a conservation plan and Colorado has one and Wyoming has one. And this panel is headed by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, one a Democrat, one a Republican. And they are hoping that by working with BLM to create these conservation areas, they're going to be able to avoid a listing. They're going to -- the BLM and Fish and Wildlife will be able to say, well the bird has enough habitat set aside, therefore we don't need to list it as threatened, therefore a lot more development can happen.
WEISSBut as Kathleen mentioned, there are a lot of officials in these states who think that the decision has already been made. And they point to one other example. There's a bird called the lesser prairie chicken that's in about five states, Texas, Oklahoma, that area, New Mexico I think as well. And that bird -- those states work to create a conservation area for that bird as well.
WEISSWell, they didn't create enough for they didn't do enough. And so just last month -- or back in March, I should say, the last day in March the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Lesser Prairie Chicken as threatened. So a lot of these agencies -- a lot of these conservationists -- a lot of these states rather are -- believe that the deck is stacked against them and that the decision's already been made.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten from McLaren who says, "Talk about the principle involved. This is about our country setting aside lands that the public has paid for. The reason this land was set aside was for the protection of our natural resources. This is about people trying to make a dollar off of this preserved resource. Do we want to give away our public lands or not? Do we want to let big business and private individuals have priority over public land set aside for the protection of natural resources and wildlife or not? That is the question. It's not a single bird versus the U.S. economy." Kathleen, could you respond to McLaren's point?
SGAMMASure. That's an incorrect assumption on what public lands in the west are all about. Because of a huge amount of public lands in the west, indeed we do have some set aside. We have 110 million acres set aside for wilderness. We have 84 million acres set aside for national parks. We have other protective land designations. BLM has about 26 million acres in other protective status.
SGAMMABut much of the land in the west is for multiple use. It's not supposed to be just set aside as a national park. It is for different economic uses, multiple uses such as mining, timber, oil and gas, wind, solar, agriculture. And it's not about greedy big oil, as Daniel was trying to paint a broad brush. It's about different -- small companies mostly, independent companies across the west who develop energy that the American people own.
SGAMMASo that's energy that's developed and a fare return is returned to the American taxpayer for that energy. And meanwhile the taxpayer also benefits from that energy created. So here in the west we produce about a quarter of the nation's oil and gas production.
PAGEAll right. Let's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. Let's go first to Eric who's calling us from Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Hi, Eric.
ERICHi, how are you?
ERICI'd just like to say when they say that we don't need a federal policy to tell us how to manage endangered species, the last thing that the states took a hold of was taking care of the wolf. And in Idaho, Wyoming they've done a good job shooting them and decimating the herds. So I just disagree when they say that the states and the local people know better.
PAGEAll right, Eric. Thanks for your comment. Any different perspectives on the wolf example?
WEISSYeah, the states have a different interest. The state's goal is to maximize the tax revenue from whatever economic use or particularly an extracted use that they can get, whereas the federal government is designed to protect, not just for multiple use, but also sustainable yield. That means that the use will be able to continue.
WEISSAnd in fact, if you look at the number of jobs in this country, there's three times more jobs in the outdoors recreation industry, for example, than there are in oil and gas. The recreation industry produces almost $700 billion a year in revenue. So it's a big industry in and of itself. Recreation, hunting and fishing, is a sustainable use. Oil and gas, not so much. There's, like for example, in Colorado last year, there was more than an oil spill a day in Colorado from oil and gas production. So that use isn't quite as sustainable.
WEISSAnd, you know, the companies that Ms. Sgamma was talking about, you're right, they are small. They're like Conoco Philips, $9 billion a year in profits last year. Halliburton...
SGAMMAOh, that's so untrue.
WEISSExcuse me, I'm speaking.
WEISSHalliburton, $2 billion a year in profits. Shalom Boshay (sp?) , $6 billion a year in profits. Those are all members of Ms. Sgamma's association.
PAGEKathleen, let me give you a chance to respond.
SGAMMAWell, I'm going to start with the missed interpretation of the role of the states. States have an interest in protecting the environment and protecting wildlife just as much as the federal government does. So I just absolutely disagree with this notion that the federal government is better at protecting the environment and wildlife than states are. States have game and fish associations, they manage their agencies. They manage their wildlife, they protect the wildlife. And on the ground efforts to protect sage grouse and other species are definitely more effective.
SGAMMAAnd as far as this bugaboo of talking about big oil, certainly there are large companies and certainly there are small companies, all working together to produce domestic energy here in the United States instead of sending those dollars overseas. We as a nation rely on oil and gas. It's the basis of our economy. And we do it here at home, we do it responsibly. In the west, out of that 700 million acres that BLM manages mineral estate on, we disturb about 500,000 acres. That's less than a tenth of a percent.
SGAMMASo we manage -- you know, we develop that energy. It's managed wisely. We have a small and temporary impact. And we do that in an environmentally-responsible manner. Now this notion of spills, you know, we have to report very de minimis spills, very small spills, whether they're contained on the pad and cleaned up. We have to report those. So that is just another red herring.
WILSONWell, this sort of underscores the larger point about the balance between the states and the feds and exactly what's at stake in this decision. Through a bizarre quirk of the law, the federal government owns the lands but the states own the animals. So a sage grouse that's hanging out on BLM land in Mineral County, Nevada is actually Nevada's grouse even though it's sitting on federal land.
WILSONAnd this reminds me of the -- when -- if this decision is made, a lot of the conservation costs will have to be borne by the states. Now the states have spent a lot of money. As Kathleen said earlier, it's something like 154 million in the first decade of this century. And it's been another 100 and something, 130, 140 million in the last just couple of years trying to set aside a lot of this land to protect the sage grouse.
WILSONThe larger context though is remember the great fight over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest? Well, this -- they were on about 24 million acres. This is seven times that amount of land.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. And reading your emails, you can send us an email at email@example.com. Let's go to Chris calling us from Chapel Hill, N.C. Chris, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CHRISHi. Thanks for taking my call. I know a lot about this topic. I'm a retired range conservation officer that worked in Nevada for 15 years. And I got my masters in range life ecology from the University of Nevada. And I just need to reiterate that the sage grouse status as a threatened possible endangered species has been going on for decades, about 50 years. The University of Nevada has ongoing (unintelligible) ...
PAGEAll right. Chris, thanks so much for your call. I'm afraid we're losing you. Perhaps you're on a cell phone, but any comments on what Chris was saying?
WILSONOne of the interesting parts about the sage grouse is that it is an umbrella species. It's just one of dozens, maybe hundreds of animals that are on this sagebrush habitat that depend on it to live, whether it's a pronghorn or a pigmy rabbit or something like that. A lot of the state officials who I have been talking to over the last couple of weeks are concerned that if the fish and wildlife service decides not to list the sage grouse, that the next lawsuit will be about the pigmy rabbit or about the pronghorn or about something else.
WILSONThere are so many species that depend on this particular patch of land that it seems almost -- I had to be a cynic but it seems almost that the only winner here on either side is going to be the lawyers.
WEISSWell, you know, that's almost always true. The lawyers win in the end, but what you're saying essentially, Reid, is that the sage grouse is, in effect, the canary in the coalmine and whether or not we're going to have a whole series of species that are going to be able to continue to live in these lands owned by all Americans or whether or not they're doomed to eventual, you know, extinction because we poorly manage those resources.
PAGEIt's all about balancing interests though, right? I mean, that is kind of the nature of every decision the government makes. And is that effort to balance interest, has it changed during the Obama Administration from the Bush Administration? Or is this debate...
PAGEHow has it changed?
WEISSAbsolutely. The Obama Administration looking out across a whole range of things is very interested in what does the science say? And just look last week, the national climate assessment came out, was required under law signed by President George H. W. Bush to come out every four years. Well, President George Bush never did one. Now we've had two under President Obama and the science says we need to act now on climate change, which is something that we ought to talk about here because how we use our lands and what we use them for is going to have some impact there as well.
PAGEAnd talk about that just for a moment. How does the debate over climate change fit in with our debate over the use of these public lands?
WEISSWell, right now we use a lot of our public lands for oil and gas production or for coal production. And we're not going to be able to burn all of the coal and all of the oil and all of the gas that we have underground and still fend off the worst impacts of climate change. One of the things -- in fact, the International Energy Agency said we may have to leave about two-thirds of the carbon in the ground if we have any hopes of avoiding the worst impacts.
PAGEKathleen, do you see this as part of the debate over climate change?
SGAMMAThe sage grouse?
PAGENo. The whole discussion about the energy exploration on public lands, the balance of interest and so on, do you think that this new report on climate change that just came out last week and concern about that is part of this larger debate?
SGAMMAI think it's part of the larger debate but if we stopped right now and stop using fossil fuels in the United States, it would nothing to stave off climate change because the rest of the world continues to advance and use more and more fossil fuels. So it's naive to think that we can just keep everything in the ground, because all that would results in is either, you know, killing our economy or we have to import that from overseas.
SGAMMASo, you know, this debate really needs to be focused more on the balance that we have in our society. We can't just shut down the engine of our society and expect to effectively address climate change when the rest of the world is increasing emissions. And, you know, I'm proud in the natural gas industry that we are the reason that the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions more than any other industry. By using more natural gas we actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And now we're down to about mid 1990s levels, largely because of the natural gas industry.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones and take some of your calls and questions, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about public lands and the effort to balance economic, environmental and other interests. We've been joined this hour by Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, she's on the phone from Denver, Reid Wilson from The Washington Post, Daniel Weiss from the Center for American Progress. And now we're going to talk on the phone for a few minutes with Brian O'Donnell. He is executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation in Durango, Colo. Brian, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRIAN O'DONNELLThanks, Susan.
PAGESo what's your prospective on this discussion that we've been having this hour?
O'DONNELLWell, Susan, I was really fortunate in that just this past weekend I spent on public lands. My wife, six-year-old daughter and I floated down the San Juan River in Utah. And along the way we saw abundant wildlife, Native American sites, petroglyphs, and just spectacular scenery. Public lands are just so important to us here in the West. In Durango, where I live, we get our drinking water from the San Juan National Forest. So we rely on public lands for our water. We hunt and fish there. And it's a big part of our quality of life, our tourism economy.
O'DONNELLAnd I think we need to make sure that we pass these lands down undiminished to future generations. And not see them just as places that we can drill for oil, but rather a key part of the Western economy and communities and a key part of our quality of life.
PAGEWell, do you think they're now being diminished or are they being preserved, in your view?
O'DONNELLYou know, it's, as Mr. Kornze mentioned at the beginning of the show, there's always an attempt to balance it. But I have to say it's been out of whack lately. We've seen millions and millions of acres leased for oil and gas. And I just have to disagree with Ms. Sgamma that it's a temporary and minimal footprint. If you look south of where we are in the San Juan Basin, there is a permanent scarring of the land, roads everywhere, well pads, leaks. You don't see people go there to hunt and fish anymore, because the habitat's been destroyed. So I think we need to do more on the conservation end of the spectrum.
WEISSYou know, Susan, one thing that's important to note is, even under President Obama, they have leased more than twice as many acres for oil and gas production from public lands than they have permanently protected them, by about 7 million acres to about 2.5 million acres.
PAGEWell, is your -- do you agree with Brian, Dan, that the administration has gone out of whack, that they're not doing enough to preserve?
WEISSThey could do more to protect wild places from drilling in order to have the other sustainable uses like hunting, fishing, clean water and clean air. Yes, they could be doing more. And they're making indications that they have and will be doing more. They just created a national monument in California. Hopefully, there will be others to come.
PAGESo, Kathleen, do you think the Obama administration has, in fact, been pretty generous in opening more lands to energy exploration?
SGAMMANo, it has not. Actually, it's been leasing less land since 1988, at least less last year than since 1988, when they cut specifics. So let me correct some misconceptions. Acreage is leased, but that does not mean that it's all disturbed for oil and gas. So of the 700 million acres of mineral estate, we disturb -- we actually occupy about 500,000 acres. And that equates to less than a tenth of a percent of all public...
WEISSYes, but Kathleen that doesn't include the roads and the other infrastructure that's necessary...
SGAMMAYes, it does. When BLM calculates that...
WEISSAccording to the federal government -- go ahead. Go ahead.
SGAMMAWhen BLM calculates that number, they take into account roads and other infrastructure. So we believe a balance has been maintained...
WEISSWell according to BLM there's 11 million acres that are being produced.
SGAMMAIt, yes. The leases are being produced, but that does not mean all the land within that. So you may have a leasehold of 5,000 acres, but you may only disturb a very small portion of that leasehold. So that's, you know, the misconception there. The actual occupation of the land is very small. And it is a temporary impact. We reclaim the land back to its original use, so that in many places, we're seeing the Wilderness Society and other groups are actually proposing areas that had prior oil and gas development as wilderness.
SGAMMASo that tells me, we can do both. We can develop that land responsibly. We can reclaim it to its prior state. And then it's still available for wilderness designation or other designations, recreation. And we're not incompatible. We coexist with agriculture. We coexist with recreation, with sportsmen. So it's a fallacy that the land is just destroyed by oil and gas. It's a temporary impact and we reclaim to such a pristine state that environmental groups regularly propose areas with prior oil and gas development as wilderness.
PAGEBrian, is that your experience?
O'DONNELLNot at all. I mean I don't know if Ms. Sgamma gets out from Denver at all. But if she actually visited some of the oil fields that she's proposing, the Jonah Field in Wyoming or in the San Juan Basin, nobody's hunting and fishing there. The mule deer populations are declining in Wyoming. No one wants to take their family for a hike in an oil field. No one wants to go hunting there. So they don't reclaim them to pristine areas. I think that's just a myth. And I guess that's what you'd expect. She's paid by these companies to say that. But being (unintelligible) ...
SGAMMAYou know, I was in the San Juan Basin last week. I regularly get out. Those in the oil and gas industry, myself included, are regular hunters and fishermen and hikers and campers. We enjoy the land. We want to protect it just as much as anyone else. And we work very hard to do that and make sure that our impact is mitigated and that we do reclaim the land. And there are many areas that we recreate in that have prior oil and gas development. Now, absolutely, in the middle of full-field development in certain areas like the Jonah, you're not going to want to hike and camp and fish there.
SGAMMABut that doesn't mean that just a few miles away there aren't areas to recreate and plenty of wildlife. So we have that balance in the West. We maintain that on multiple-use public lands.
PAGEOkay. Brian O'Donnell, thanks so much for giving us a call. Brian O'Donnell, he's executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. Reid.
WILSONThe tension that we're hearing here is replicated all over the West, especially now because this energy production is becoming such a huge part of economies all over the West, whether it's the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or obviously the drilling that's been going on for years in Alaska or Wyoming. It's becoming a huge part of these states' economies. They get a lot of their tax dollars out of extraction taxes, severance taxes, the taxes that's taken on energy that comes out of the ground.
WILSONThe only states that were essentially economically healthy during the recession were Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota, the three states that produced the most oil as a sort of percentage of their own state budgets. Those were the only tax revenues that weren't -- that didn't fall off a cliff during the great recession. So now you're starting to see new exploration and development in places like Nevada and Utah -- essentially all over the West. California Governor Jerry Brown is talking about offshore drilling.
WILSONYou know, this guy who we think of as a uber-lefty is all of sudden talking about offshore drilling, because hey the severance taxes can be a huge part of that state's budget. So with so much money involved, now is when the tension is greater than ever between the environmental community and those who are more on the oil and gas side.
PAGEJoan is calling us from Fort Worth, Texas. Joan, thanks for giving us a call.
JOANThank you. I've enjoyed listening to the conversation and I respect saving all species. But my question is leaning more toward the BLM. And the -- a few weeks ago there was a lot of news made about a rancher. And I believe he's in -- I want to say Colorado, but I could be wrong there -- that had leased acreage for years from the government to graze his cattle herds. He never paid any money to the government for that privilege to do so.
JOANAnd at the same time, the BLM is attacking and wiping out wild horse and wild burro herds all across the West for the privilege of ranchers to graze their cattle, sometimes as low as $.50 an acre. What can be done? There are thousands of people in this country that really love the wild horse herds. They are being rounded up by helicopter. They're being held in holding pens for years. They are sold at auction. They are sold for slaughter. And that land, I believe at one time, was designated to preserve the wild horse. And I'll just let go now. I would be interested in any comments that you have about that.
JOANThank you very much.
PAGEJoan, thank you so much for your call. Reid.
WILSONWell, the situation with the Bureau of Land Management throughout the West is very complicated. We heard at the top from the director of the BLM talking about the Cliven Bundy situation out in Nevada, which is I think what you were talking about, Joan. The rancher who had, sort of, almost came to blows with BLM officials. The wild horse issue is something that he addressed as well. We heard these herds explode in population at certain times. And remember the horse is not native to North America. We brought them over -- the Europeans brought them over.
WILSONAnd this is a -- this is very complicated. And there are so many millions of acres here -- hundreds of millions of acres out West where we're dealing with not only the sage grouse in Northern Nevada and all these other 11 states, but also there's a desert tortoise in Southern Nevada, near where Cliven Bundy is, that has locked up a bunch of land as well, because it was listed under the endangered species act. And so there are a lot of sort of balls in the air that BLM has to juggle.
WILSONAnd it's one of the agencies that we don't really pay attention to east of the Mississippi. But west of the Mississippi, you know, it's probably the government agency that is in closest touch with a significant number of people.
PAGEWell, the Cliven Bundy standoff, which is not over, which is continuing, certainly focused a lot of attention on that. And I wonder if you see elements of the kind of Sagebrush Rebellion that we heard about in the 1970s, where there was a real pushback in some Western states against the federal ownership of all these lands.
WEISSWell, not coincidentally, when there's Democratic presidents, there tends to be a huge reaction from a sort of right-wing element in the West. In the '70s, it was the Sagebrush Rebellion. In the '90s, when President Clinton was in office, it was the so-called Wise Use Movement. And now it is Bundy and his buddies. And that's because many of them are reviewed that these lands don't belong to the federal government and to all Americans, they belong to the use -- for their use.
WEISSNow, like in George W. Bush's administration, they weren't very big on enforcing the law in many cases, so the movement tends to die down, especially since they agree with Bush on other issues. But when Democrats are in office, that's when they saddle up and ride with, you know, in the posse.
PAGEKathleen, is there a political element to this?
SGAMMAI don't think so, other than that this administration has pursued more policies that are constraining agriculture and have been in more pursuing the environmental agenda than perhaps the previous administration. And you do see a reaction to that. But I think it's important to remember how much land in the West was retained by the federal government, unlike in the East, where the federal government didn't retain that land. It became private property or state property.
SGAMMAIn the West, where the federal government retained so much land, it's used for productive purposes like ranching, like energy development. So it's not a matter of, you know, somehow people in the West are taking something from those in the East. They're merely trying to have economic activity, create jobs, and pursue productive activities here in the West, on lands that are appropriately designated for ranching or mining or timber or what have you.
SGAMMAAnd this no -- I just would like to speak to the wild horses, too. As Reid mentioned, they're not a native species and they do compete with wildlife. And that's why, when those herd numbers get too large, they actually crowd out wildlife. And so that's why BLM has to control those wild horse populations. They're a feral species.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, Reid, remind us why so much of the West is owned by the federal government.
WILSONWell, it's because the West wasn't a part of the U.S. when we became a country. And as populations moved West and as more and more states became -- were admitted into the Union, there weren't necessarily people on all of those lands. So when the State of Nevada was created during the Civil War, there were -- there's a huge portion of Nevada where nobody lived. So who was going to own that land? Well, the federal government owned that land. And it -- the state governments weren't strong enough to take it at that point -- take responsibility for them at that point.
WILSONAnd that leads to a number of different problems in sort of state and federal interactions these days -- most notably, I think, when we're talking about wildfires. In the State of California, you know, they spent billions of dollars last year fighting wildfires -- everything from the Rim Fire to some of these smaller fires. I mean, there was a 300 acre fire in Humboldt County earlier this year that not many people paid attention to, but for the fact that Humboldt County is perhaps the wettest county in America, in the contiguous U.S. And there was a wildfire there in January which was shocking to some folks who warn that that's a sign of climate change.
WILSONOn the other hand, in Nevada, they didn't spend that much. They only spent a couple million dollars fighting fires, because frankly the land is owned by the feds. The feds have to spend the money on fighting that wildfire, or at least reimburse the state for the money they spend on fighting those fires. So all across the West, the fact that the federal government owns so many of these lands, impacts how states run their fire operations, how states run water, how states deal with some of these species like the sage grouse and the pronghorn and everything else. Well, you know...
PAGELet's -- go ahead.
WILSONIt's very important to note that when these states entered the Union, it was part of the condition that the right and title of these lands remained with all Americans. So what states who want to take over these lands are trying to do is basically change the deal, you know, years after the fact that it was made. And, in fact, what you mentioned about the wildfires is, we're in for a big wildfire season this year because of persistent drought, again, linked to climate change and burning of fossil fuels.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten that reflects the view of several of our listeners who've gotten in touch with us. This one reads, "If resources are being extracted from federal lands, why is it being done by private corporations? Nationalize, and citizens reap the reward rather than a select few."
WEISSWell, one of things we can do...
SGAMMAWell, let me...
WEISS...we don't want to nationalize the oil companies. That's not the American way. But what we can do, is we can charge a higher royalty rate for the resources that we do extract. Resources, oil and gas that's extracted on state lands often pay a higher royalty rate than they do on federal lands. We can raise revenue that way. And taxpayers are not getting a good deal in that regard.
SGAMMAWell, they absolutely are. Taxpayers receive a fair royalty. States often do charge a higher royalty rate than the federal government, because the federal government has chosen to extract more from energy companies in the form of additional regulation and more process. So it is much more expensive to operate on public lands because of all of the additional federal process. So were the federal government to charge a higher royalty rate, it would see actually less development on public lands as companies would move off of public land.
WEISSI find that hard to believe that they're not going to go where the resources are. And not only that, in addition to low royalty rates, the companies that Kathleen represents and others get $5 billion a year in annual tax breaks special for big oil.
PAGEI'm afraid we're about out of time. I want to close with an email we've gotten from Will, writing us from New Hampshire. He writes, the prairie chicken's cousin, the heath hen, went extinct in Massachusetts in 1932, despite efforts to save it. Today, they have only a statue. Will, thank you for sending us your email. And my thanks also to our panel. Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance. She's joined us by phone from Denver.
PAGEAnd with me, in the studio, Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, and Reid Wilson, a staff writer at The Washington Post. Thank you all for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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