11/11/2013 10:46 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Mendocino -- and America -- Puts Out "Welcome" Mat for Secretary Jewell

On Friday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the hamlet of Point Arena, along the Mendocino Coast of Northern California. Presumably, she wasn't going for the wine, but for the people. The community welcomed her for a public meeting about the future of a small swath of breathtaking public lands along the California coastline. The Secretary visited with small business owners, school children, private landowners, local electeds and others eager to have President Obama designate a national monument to protect their public lands.

This was the first trip following the Secretary's seminal speech at the National Press Club last week about the value of conservation. The speech was appreciated and extremely timely, as our national heritage needs her leadership.

Nationally, the Administration has been leasing public land to oil and gas companies at a rate two-and-a-half times that of the lands receiving permanent protections. It doesn't help that our dysfunctional Congress isn't passing any legislation anymore - never mind bills to adequately fund and protect public lands.

And so, here in New Mexico, oil and gas development is on the doorstep of Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a historic archeological site. In Colorado, it is risking internationally-prized hunting grounds and gold-medal fisheries. In Utah, recreation and tourism leaders are demanding thoughtful planning take place before oil and gas development occurs near Arches National Park and popular mountain bike trails on nearby public lands. In Wyoming, faith leaders are speaking out about moral implications of reckless development.

Some advance planning could help. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already has the necessary tools to avoid and minimize conflicts between oil and gas development and recreation, and protect drinking water supplies, cultural sites, air quality and wildlife habitat. It just needs to use them.

As the Secretary said at the National Press Club last week, one of the key challenges facing the Administration is "how we balance the inherent tensions that can exist with development and conservation. Part of the answer is encouraging development in the right ways and in the right places. Part of the answer is recognizing that there are some places that are too special to develop."

The BLM-managed public lands at Stornetta are among those places. So are the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks public lands near Las Cruces. Communities from West Virginia to Idaho and California are asking Washington to act to conserve their heritage. If Congress won't do it, Secretary Jewell appropriately said the White House would.

Hearing the Secretary speak out in this way at the Press Club was inspiring - and not just for those of us in the West that see the tension between energy and conservation every day. As a former BLM Director, I know it is important for agency staff to have a clear direction. The BLM, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service are ambassadors to the American people, working hard to manage the often-competing demands on the nation's public estate. Knowing the Secretary's vision and the President's policy priorities is critical to the success of front-line agency field staff.

Seeing her put that vision into action is even better.

I hope the Secretary continues visiting with Americans who want their public lands protected - and heeding their concerns. I encourage President Obama to join her, as well, to see our irreplaceable landscapes and meet Americans newly energized by the government shutdown to champion the value of their parks and public lands. The "welcome" mat is out!