by Jessica Goad
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, told The Reno Gazette-Journal earlier this year that he doesn’t know “the purpose of ” public lands. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt—who was an avid hunter and the father of American conservation—have realized the many purposes of public lands. They support our nation’s energy sector, provide clean air and clean water, and serve a critical role in preserving our heritage as a nation. Protecting parks, monuments, and other wilderness areas stimulates hundreds of thousands of jobs from recreation and tourism alone. Yet Gov. Romney apparently thinks our 700 million acres of federal public lands serve no obvious purpose.
So what are Gov. Romney’s and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI), policies on public lands? We examined the plans of the two candidates alongside their previous votes and policy positions, discovering that, for them, the purpose of public lands is:
- More access for oil and gas drilling and less investment in cleaner alternative energy sources
- The sale of public lands rather than further conservation for future enjoyment and job creation
- Less public access to public lands due to ill-considered budget cuts rather than investments in our parks and wilderness areas to boost local economies and jobs
In short, the public lands policies of Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan would be disastrous for the 700 million acres of federal public lands that belong to all of us.
Much of the evidence for this analysis of the Republican ticket’s public lands policy agenda is derived from Rep. Ryan’s past votes as a member of Congress. But Gov. Romney’s vagueness and lack of understanding about public lands issues in general also provides a sense of where the campaign’s priorities do or do not lie.
It is clear that instead of putting public lands to work in support of a balanced energy strategy and conservation goals compatible with economic opportunity and the pursuit of happiness, the Republican candidates for the presidency and vice presidency of our nation would drill, slash, and sell our public lands to benefit a few well-connected businesses and individuals. In this issue brief, we detail these plans, beginning with energy and then moving to access, funding, and the sale of public lands.
Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan want fossil fuels to be the winners and want sources of renewable energy to be the losers in our nation’s future energy development. They want to preserve tax breaks for oil companies, slash clean energy investments, and promote vast amounts of new oil drilling. These energy priorities also extend to public lands, as can be seen through the campaign’s energy plan and Rep. Ryan’s past votes in Congress.
The campaign’s focus on expanding domestic oil and gas production seems particularly strange when put in context—under the Obama administration, fossil fuel production has been steady and growing on both private and public lands. For example, oil production from publicly owned lands and waters is higher now than it was in the final three years of the George W. Bush administration. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management held three of its five largest-ever oil and gas lease sales in calendar year 2011.
Turning energy decisions over to the states
The energy plan released by the Romney campaign in late August proposes transferring decisions regarding energy development on public lands from the federal government to the states. This could result in much more drilling and mining on public lands while bypassing federal environmental and health protections because, as The New York Times put it, “States, as a rule, tend to be interested mainly in resource development.”
Troublingly, this portion of Gov. Romney’s plan is very vague when it comes to the integrity of national parks. It claims that energy decisions about “lands specially designated off-limits” will not be turned over to the states, but it is unclear about what precisely that means. It could indicate that places protected from development by current law such as national parks would be off limits. But it also could be interpreted to mean that only places chosen by a Romney-Ryan administration would be off limits, leaving the management of energy resources in national parks up to different states.
Giving states the authority to permit drilling or mining in or near national parks would also sidestep public comment procedures as required by the federal review process. This means that rather than involving the public in decisions about their lands, individual states would be solely in charge of permitting controversial projects near national parks such as uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, oil and gas drilling near Arches National Park in Utah, and coal mining 10 miles from that state’s picturesque Bryce Canyon.
This proposal prompted many citizens who value public lands to be concerned, including sportsmen. A columnist for Field and Stream, a popular outdoor activities magazine, recently wrote that: