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Ann Morgan Headshot

Energy Bills Would Limit the 'Public' in Our Public Lands

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"The people's lands." "Our public lands." "Our great national park system."

All those phrases and more resounded last month during a joint hearing of the U.S. House Natural Resources and Oversight and Government Reform committees. The Republican majority used the hearing as a chance to lambaste National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis for closing the country's national parks during the 16-day government shutdown when federal agencies were forced to furlough employees and halt most work.

Roughly a month later, the majority of the House voted to make energy development the priority on "our public lands" and prevent the federal government from regulating fracking on federal lands if a state has its own rules.

What happened to the concern for the lands that belong to all Americans?

After the bad publicity fueled by photos and video of people being turned away from national parks and other public sites during the shutdown, 13 members of Congress wrote an indignant letter to Jarvis saying: "Public lands are owned by all the people. They have a right to their continued use."

However, all 13 saw no problem voting for H.R. 1965, sponsored by Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, one of those who signed the letter. The bill, passed 228-192 by the House Nov. 20, would speed up approval of private drilling leases on federal lands and roll back oil and gas leasing reforms that have helped reduce protests by requiring more upfront analysis. A $5,000 fee to challenge a proposed lease, right of way or drilling permit would undoubtedly limit the members of the public able to participate in decisions on their public lands.

A second bill approved last week by the House, where members decried the closure of the American people's lands, would prohibit the federal government from regulating fracking on federal lands where states have their own rules. Federal lands, unlike state lands, are governed by laws mandating the accommodation of multiple uses, including conservation. These public lands are a public trust and are enjoyed and cherished by Americans across the country. But the bill, H.R. 2728, doesn't require that state fracking regulations covering public lands meet minimum standards or consider the other land uses covered by our federal laws.

Evidently, there's a limit to some politicians' concerns about the public's lands. The concern is white-hot when the cameras are rolling and the shutters are clicking - and there are political points to be made.

Some members of Congress might also have a rather narrow perception of our nation's public lands. The land's value isn't limited to high-profile national parks. Public lands contain critical water sources, habitat for fish and wildlife and generate billions of dollars in revenue from fishing, hunting, wildlife watching and other recreation. Talk to business owners in any of the communities whose restaurants and motels were full of hunters this season to hear how important that sustainable part of the economy is. The National Wildlife Federation released a report earlier this year highlighting the value of the country's public lands and the threats posed by state and federal proposals to dismantle environmental protections and sell or turn over the land to states.

The two House bills approved last week are among those threats. Rather than provide for responsible energy development on public lands, the legislation would make energy the preferred use, hamstring public input and undermine assurances that the public health and welfare are being safeguarded. The bills would set the ground for turning large patches of the West into an energy colony at a time when U.S. oil production is already at record levels, natural gas prices remain low because of a big supply and roughly two-thirds of the 38 million acres of federal oil and gas leases sit idle.

Why the rush to run roughshod over the people's lands?

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