Parity sought between drilling, conservation

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

A newly launched environmental campaign calls on the federal government to match every acre of public land leased for oil and natural gas development with an acre set aside in perpetuity for conservation.

Supporters of Equal Ground came to Grand Junction to meet with local environmental leaders and the owners of outdoor recreation businesses to spread a message: energy development and conservation deserve equal footing.

Based in Denver, the Equal Ground campaign was created by the environmental groups Center for Western Priorities, Conservation Lands Foundation and The Wilderness Society as well as the Center for American Progress, a think tank supported by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, both of whom served in the Clinton Administration.

Trevor Kincaid, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said Equal Ground seeks a balanced approach to energy development and conservation. “We don’t want to shut down all drilling. But we do want parity, for protection of public lands to be placed on an even plane with oil and gas.”

Kincaid said Equal Ground is critical of what it sees as a lack of effort in Congress at protecting additional public land from development, particularly oil and gas drilling. “This is the first Congress since World War II to not protect a single acre of public land” Kincaid said, echoing comments made by Babbitt

Kincaid and Equal Ground staff have gone on a tour of the Rocky Mountain west to bring attention to the initiative.

During their Grand Valley stop, the group conducted a roundtable visit at a park near the Dinosaur Adventures museum in Fruita. The meeting included Tom Kleinschnitz, president of Adventure Bound River Expeditions; Greg Gnesios, a former public lands manager; Dan Robinson, a Colorado Mesa University trustee; and Jim Spehar, a former member of the Grand Junction City Council and Mesa County Commission.

Much of the discussion focused on the economic effects of tourism and outdoor recreation, and how those industries depend in part on protecting public lands from development.

Robinson said CMU markets itself in part as a place where students and their families can explore the outdoors. “People don’t come here to stare at an oil and gas rig,” he said.

Moreover, the perception Western Colorado remains dependent on oil and natural gas development isn’t true, he said. “Energy isn’t the main industry in Western Colorado. Together, health care, agriculture, tourism and recreation and education are bigger employers than the energy industry.”

Kleinschnitz oversees a business that offers river rafting tours and depends on public lands. He said his business also depends on oil and gas for fuel and materials, but he still has some concerns about the energy industry. “The fear I have with oil and gas is the degradation of viewsheds and water. And I hope the industry is working on that.”

Kleinschnitz said his other great concern involves what he considers the seemingly constant threat of a government shutdown, which he said could seriously harm his business.

Gnesios said oil and gas has had an advantage on federal lands. “In less than a year after the administration changed hands (from President Clinton to President Bush) half of our budget went to the oil and gas side of the house” Gnesios said, referring to his time as regional manager with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Gnesios called for more land to be set aside like the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.

Kincaid said the Equal Ground campaign will consist mainly of trying to persuade Congress and President Barack Obama to adopt policies that balance equal allotment of drilling leases and protected areas. “We will take this diversity of voices to Washington, D.C., and make it clear to lawmakers that there is broad support for protecting our public lands.”