The big public land sell-out

Even without wholesale land transfers, public lands are already being conveyed to industry.

 

Next month, hundreds of corporate representatives will sit down at their computers, log into something called Energynet, and bid, eBay style, for more than 300,000 acres of federal land spread across five Western states. They will pay as little as $2 per acre for control of parcels in southeastern Utah’s canyon country, Wyoming sage grouse territory and Native American ancestral homelands in New Mexico.

Even as public land advocates scoff at the idea of broad transfers of federal land to states and private interests, this less-noticed conveyance continues unabated. It is a slightly less egregious version of the land transfers that state supremacists, Sagebrush Rebels and privatization advocates have pushed for since the 1970s.

It’s called oil and gas leasing, conducted under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. With President Donald Trump touting in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that Republicans have “ended the war on American energy,” you can expect leasing to ramp up in years to come. While title to the land is not transferred in these cases, the power of public oversight — which puts the “public” in public lands — is. Leased land remains under federal control, meaning that the companies operating there are subject to federal regulations and oversight, public access to the land is retained, and the American public still has a say over what happens there — but only theoretically.

Oil drilling infrastructure surrounds the Pierre’s, an archaeological site on a road leading out of Chaco Canyon. The site itself is protected, but the BLM plans to lease thousands of acres nearby to oil and gas development this year.
Jonathan Thompson

In practice, the public has very little voice in the leasing process or the permitting of development that follows. After an oil and gas company or the Bureau of Land Management nominates parcels for leasing, the public is given a chance to comment or file a formal protest. Quite often these protests fall on deaf ears. BLM data show that over the last 20 years, the number of parcels protested has no bearing on how many were removed from bidding. The Obama administration tried to give the public a bit more say on the front end of the process with its master leasing plans, but Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke killed the rule, and public impotence appears to be worsening. A High Country News analysis found that hundreds of protests were lodged against nearly all of the 1.4 million acres offered by the BLM for lease in six Western states in 2017. A vast majority of the protests were dismissed or denied.

From 1988 to 2016, an average of 3.43 million acres — or 5,300 square miles — of federal land was leased out to oil and gas companies each year. The leases vest the companies with property rights to extract oil, gas or other resources from the land. Those rights are retained for the term of the lease — 10 years or more without development and indefinitely after production begins. If the land becomes a national monument or gains other protected status during the lease, the property rights remain in place. By the end of the 2016 fiscal year, private interests controlled more than 27 million acres of federal land through leasing.

Before the leaseholder can scrape away a half-acre of vegetation and topsoil for a well pad and drill miles into the earth, it must get a drilling permit. While public input is typically not a part of the permitting process, the public has an indirect voice by way of the regulatory framework officials must work within when issuing the permit. This process represents the last vestige of public ownership over the leased land. 

Now Zinke is doing his best to blow that process to bits. The Interior secretary has weakened regulation of fracking, methane waste and other emissions and reopened a loophole that was closed under President Barack Obama to reduce royalty fraud on public lands. Now, he’s looking to axe older rules, too, many of which protect wild spaces and cultural resources from development. Under Zinke, industry will run over the public lands like they own the place, and land management agencies (public employees on public lands) will have little power to stop them. So, while Zinke has repeatedly expressed his vociferous opposition to wholesale federal land transfers, his enthusiasm for leasing adds up to the same thing. The Interior secretary is running a de facto privatization scheme.

Zinke’s zeal is now being tested in northern New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, where, as part of the March auction, the BLM is scheduled to lease 4,434 acres of land that is culturally significant to the Navajo and Pueblo people. The BLM has received 120 formal protests against the sale, including from the All Pueblo Council of Governors — a consortium of 20 tribal nations — four Navajo chapters, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, eight environmental groups, the Pueblo of Acoma and numerous individuals. We have yet to see how the BLM will respond to these official protests, but when it does, we’ll know who really calls the shots and who really owns our nation’s public lands.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...