The BLM rarely withdraws lands from lease sales in New Mexico because it tries hard to keep controversial parcels off the block in the first place, says Tony Herrell, deputy director of the BLM's New Mexico office.
Nicole Rosmarino, a policy analyst with WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe who regularly files protests, disagrees. "In the majority of sales, there are significant resource values at stake, and the majority of the time, BLM proceeds with leasing," she says. "I would call (the BLM) marginally responsive to our protests."
The agency's unpredictable response to protests reflects a highly decentralized system in which each state office has a great deal of autonomy. Each field office is responsible for crafting its own resource management plan every 10 to 15 years, spelling out what uses will be allowed where, from grazing to oil and gas development.
Steve Salzman, deputy director of the BLM's Division for Fluid Minerals, says each office handles protests "in a slightly different fashion" because of differences in management plans.
"I guess it depends on how comfortable they feel with their land-use plans," which determine what lands are open for leasing and what lands are not, he says. For instance, offices that have up-to-date plans in place "feel more comfortable about their leasing decisions" and may be more likely to deny a protest. Those with out-of-date plans - which include several offices in Utah - are more vulnerable, he suggests.
But even in Utah, decisions about what is leased and not leased appear to be somewhat arbitrary, at least from the Partnership's perspective.
"What you get is an across-the-board inconsistency on how they deal with leasing in general," says Belinda. "And when leases are protested, it's even more inconsistent."
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is one of the most effective protesters in the West. Belinda credits the group's success to its focus on science and game species. During his agency days, Belinda realized that the BLM was ignoring its own studies about the impact of oil and gas development and other disturbances on wildlife species. The Partnership, which has 25 employees and a $4 million annual budget, now regularly cites some of those studies - as well as the latest scientific information from academia and state agencies - in its protests. The group also examines the adequacy of the management plan for the area to be leased, as well as the actual condition of the land itself. "We try to avoid the emotional attachment to pieces of land that some other groups have," Belinda says.
Sportsmen's groups may prove more persuasive than environmentalists partly because of their cultural affinity with BLM staffers, many of whom hunt and fish, says Bruce Baizel, an attorney with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Durango, Colo. "In Wyoming and Montana, and to some extent Colorado, the wildlife sector - hunters and anglers - is very significant."
That affinity may extend to state fish and wildlife agencies, which have begun stepping up pressure on BLM managers to keep crucial habitat out of lease sales.
"If a state officially protests, I think you'll see more of an effort on the part of BLM to address those concerns and pull leases, just because they're viewed as, well, other governmental entities as opposed to the general public," Baizel says.
In 2006, the Montana Game and Fish Department protested more than 10,000 acres slated for leasing in the Beaverhead Valley, home to a blue-ribbon trout fishery as well as sage grouse habitat. The BLM removed the parcels, and ever since, it has consulted with the department before offering new leases, says T.O. Smith, an energy specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Last year, at the suggestion of the state, the agency deferred leasing on about 74,000 acres adjacent to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
"Instead of them going forward and us formally protesting those leases, they went ahead and deferred any parcel within one mile of a sage grouse lek," Smith says. "It's better to get it early when it's leased than to wait until later when it's drilled." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in February that it will consider listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. That gives the BLM one more reason to be more cautious about leasing the ground-dwelling bird's habitat, biologists say.
"State agencies typically don't want to see species listed. It can have a tremendous impact on the state economy," says Smith. "So you see even the governors wanting the state agencies to take a more active role in trying to help determine what gets leased." Yet for every acre the BLM pulls from a sale, thousands are auctioned off, including many that provide valuable wildlife habitat. In 2007, for example, the Partnership protested about 1 million acres offered for lease in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, but succeeded in having only 180,000 acres removed - about 18 percent.
"I think it's no secret that (the gas companies) are trying to get as much as they can now, before a new administration comes in," says Belinda.
In response, frustrated environmental groups and even state wildlife agencies have begun trying to find new ways to keep the agency in check. Twice in recent years, they have taken their grievances to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, a panel within the Department of Interior, which oversees the BLM. Both the state of Montana and the Center for Native Ecosystems have won favorable rulings from the panel, which told BLM offices in Montana and Utah to look more closely at potential impacts to wildlife. Some groups are taking their challenges to court. Last year, the Partnership filed its first-ever lawsuit over a lease sale in Wyoming.
The best way to rein in the leasing frenzy may involve overhauling resource management plans. In Utah alone, six management plans are getting a facelift. Many BLM offices are currently revising old plans, and conservationists are urging the agency to take a hard look at which lands it designates for leasing to begin with.
"Taking measures to look at what the impacts could be on the wildlife prior to the lease sales is what needs to happen," says the Partnership's Joel Webster.
But Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society is not optimistic. The plans he has seen so far continue to open more lands for leasing.
Ultimately, the best hope for keeping wells out of sensitive lands may be the 2008 election, conservationists say. All three presidential candidates have vowed to make renewable energy a priority. With the Bush administration on the way out, activists are hoping lease sale protests can soon be put back in the toolbox.
April Reese is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.