The hazards of the leasing game

 

Driving over our local mountain pass these days is a bit like playing that video game where you, as the driver, have to navigate a course full of hazards that appear out of nowhere. Around every hairpin turn on the narrow highway, you're likely to steer into a minefield of rocks, ranging from a scattering of loose pebbles to boulders the size of a bus. Gravity, snowmelt and fluctuating spring temperatures can turn a road that is perfectly clear in the morning into one that is blocked by a muddy debris flow by the afternoon. It's nerve-racking and a good way to remind yourself of your own mortality: Only dumb luck stands between you and a sudden, crushing death.

Conservationists and landowners facing the West's rapidly expanding natural gas boom over the past decade have experienced similar feelings of anxiety and helplessness. On private lands, where much of the early drilling activity has centered, they have found few ways to prevent any company that owns the subsurface mineral rights from bulldozing roads and well pads on the surface. But on public lands, into which the industry is now eagerly pushing, they have found a few more tools. One of them, as April Reese notes in this issue, is the right to protest the parcels the federal Bureau of Land Management auctions off every three months to the gas companies.

Convincing the agency to pull environmentally sensitive lands out of the auctions altogether is a sensible strategy and, with the current fever for energy development, a necessary one. Unfortunately, under the industry-friendly Bush administration, it is often easier said than done. Over the past seven years, the BLM has leased more than 10 million acres in the Interior West, including hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness-quality lands and prime habitat for species such as sage grouse and pronghorn antelope. Though the sales have generated millions in revenue, the money can't compensate for the long-term damage to the land; we may well look back at the years 2001-2008 as one of the greatest public-lands giveaways in history.

Conservationists have stepped up their protests in response to the leasing frenzy, and they have convinced the BLM to slow down in places - just as we were going to press in early April, for instance, the agency's New Mexico office pulled every parcel from an upcoming lease sale following a protest by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the state. But, as Reese discovered, most contested parcels are ultimately sold anyway. So some frustrated groups are turning to that tool of last resort - the courts - to slow the gas-leasing rush during the waning days of the Bush administration.

Western landscapes can change in a hurry, whether at the hand of nature - as in landslides - or the hands of humans, through something obvious, like gas development, or something much quieter, say, tree climbing. Tree climbing is a real and rapidly growing sport in the West, as Morgan Heim explains in our cover feature. And yes, some environmentalists are concerned that our forests could be damaged if too many people decide that going with the phloem is as cool as scaling boulders or mountain biking.

I'm not too worried, though. It's true that we humans have a bad habit of destroying the things we love. But tree-climbers seem like a pretty environmentally tuned crowd. Besides, after all these recent white-knuckled drives over the mountain pass, some quality time suspended in the greenery of an old monarch sounds pretty nice to me.