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Wilderness or Wild Lands? Policy Sparks Controversy

Wilderness conservation took a hit as part of this year’s federal budget compromise. A rider slipped into the bill at the last minute has put millions of acres of land back on the table for oil and gas drilling.  One of those places is South Shale Ridge in western Colorado. The area is not federally protected wilderness.  So the conservation-minded Interior Department had floated a different term for places like it, “wild lands.”  But that definition is now up in the air.


South Shale Ridge is prized for its scenery, assuming you can get there.

The area is an undeveloped island in the middle of oil and gas country northeast of Grand Junction. Kurt Kunkle of the Colorado Environmental Coalition is driving on a muddy, rutted out road beneath the ridge, but quickly gives in to nature.

"Yeah, stuck in the ruts,” he says.  

From here, it’s just easier to walk. 

Bushwhacking through dense stands of juniper trees makes for a tough climb. But before long, there are no roads in sight. Kunkle says South Shale Ridge has everything wilderness should. It looks untrammeled, wild even.  But until Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent “wild lands” order, he says the Bureau of Land Management couldn’t manage it as potential wilderness.

"It’s what I think of when I think of wilderness," Kunkle says. 

But just on the other side of South Shale Ridge, where the cliffs drop dramatically to the valley floor, David Ludlam looks out at the same vista differently.

"I see an area that’s extremely beautiful, I also see an area that at the same time has resource potential," says Ludlam,  the executive director of the western slope chapter of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association

He argues drilling and the environment have coexisted in places like this for years.  And the Interior's “wild lands” order put everything in economic limbo.   

Economic Uncertainty

Nearby, a brief burst of rain adds the sweet smell of sage brush to exhaust fumes at a truck stop along Interstate 70. Some of these trucks are owned by Trevor Taylor’s company, Old West Oil Field Services, which hauls water and sand to nearby drill rigs that frack or, hydraulic fracture, natural gas wells. 

"We’re at the mercy of those energy companies," says Taylor, who started the company with his wife and father-in-law.  "I don’t get to go out and create jobs in those places, I only get to work if they’re working." 

A couple years ago this part of the country was booming.  But a lot of the companies Taylor works for have moved to places where they can drill on private, rather than public land; states like North Dakota, Pennsylvania.  Old West used to employ a hundred people in western Colorado.  Now it’s down to about forty. 

"Those jobs and those opportunities are now moving outside of our state," Taylor says.  "And here’s just one more way that the federal government is stepping in and encroaching on a local opportunity for people to get jobs re-established here."

Arguments like those are also being made by the influential Club 20, the lobbying arm for a coalition of western slope counties.  At her office in nearby Grand Junction, executive director Bonnie Peterson says wrong place, wrong time for an order like wild-lands.

"When we have budget deficits to the extreme that we have, we should be focusing on that before we are focusing on things that can create de facto wilderness areas and shut down the livelihoods of people in our country," Peterson says.

A Shifting Mission of Multi-Use

It's not clear exactly how much implementing the order would cost.  The budget rider doesn’t specify.  Nevertheless, the economy is probably why opposition to the “wild lands” order has been building, says Patty Limerick.  She heads the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. 

"When we have a recession and we have significant unemployment and we have uncertainty about economic recovery, some of these very nice ideas that we have about nature go to the edge of the attention span," Limerick says.

Interior Department officials declined to comment for this story.  But Limerick says the “wild lands” order marks a shift toward preservation that’s been evident lately in the missions of agencies like the Bureau of Land Management.  The BLM was created in 1946 when two offices that focused on selling public lands and selling cattle grazing leases merged.

"So if that’s how the Bureau of Land Management originates, it’s not going to be the kind of tree hugging, flower-sniffing organization," Limerick says.

'No More Wilderness' Battle

During the Bush Administration, another Interior Secretary from Colorado, Gail Norton, tried to stop this newer mission.  She barred the BLM from recommending new lands for wilderness protection.  The move was a reaction to local anger at the time over what had been a sweeping designation of national monuments in Utah. 

Norton’s move was oft referred to as the “No More Wilderness Policy,” and it was lauded by people like David Ludlam of COGA.  He says the current Secretary, Ken Salazar, is trying to have it both ways.

"You can’t at one hand encourage operators to have more activity on the public lands, and on the other implement policies that would take proven reserves of natural gas off the table for future use of the United States," Ludlam says.

But back at South Shale Ridge, conservationist Kurt Kunkle says Colorado’s recreation and hunting economies also bring in millions of dollars  to Colorado's economy each year.

"People come to western communities as tourists to enjoy the sweeping views, to recreate in the backcountry," Kunkle says, taking a break from hiking.  "If we don’t provide those places for them to go, they’ll stop coming."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BLM chief Bob Abbey made a similar economic pitch late last year when they unveiled the wild-lands order in front of the giant REI store in downtown Denver. 

The rider in the current federal budget bill doesn’t extend to next year, but Interior Department officials aren’t saying whether they’ll give it another go then. 

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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