U.S. Parks, Forests, Wilderness Losing Ground to Industry

WASHINGTON, DC, April 13, 2005 (ENS) - Oil and gas drilling and mining interests control land in or near more than two-thirds of national parks, forests and wilderness areas, a computer analysis of 1,855 taxpayer owned public properties in the West reveals.

Over more than two years, millions of federal land use records in 13 states were analyzed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research organization based in Washington that uses information to protect human health and the environment.

"At current loss rates, within 20 years, mining and oil and gas industries will actively drill, mine, or otherwise control public lands inside or within five miles of every Western natural treasure, including all national parks and wilderness areas," the EWG determined in its report, "Losing Ground." oil

Oil development near California's Los Padres National Forest (Photo courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)
EWG analysts found that contrary to industry claims that conservationists have kept their activities out of public lands, petroleum and mining companies control public lands inside or within five miles of 69 percent of the 1,855 parks, wilderness areas, forests and other public treasures analyzed for this study.

"These natural treasures are an irreplaceable part of our nation's heritage," said EWG analyst Dusty Horwitt. "But drilling and mining interests already have greater access to public lands than we do - and they still want more."

EWG's analysis found that if current trends continue, in 20 years no national park, forest or other natural treasure will remain free of industry control inside or within five miles of its borders.

Despite this widespread access, 15 years of drilling and mining on public lands have produced less than two months' worth of current U.S. oil needs and less than eight months' worth of natural gas, EWG found.

In that 15 year period, industry has had access to more than 200 million acres of Western public lands, an area larger than Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona combined, according to the EWG analysis.

In 18 major decisions over the past four years, the EWG analysis shows, the administration of President George W. Bush has consistently adopted mining, oil and gas industry positions in decisions on public lands, overturning protections for remaining, pristine natural treasures throughout the West.

"Among the areas once protected but now open, or proposed as open, for business are nearly 60 million acres of roadless areas that hold tap water supplies for millions, and 3.2 million acres of wilderness quality land in Utah and Colorado."

"Yet despite this deep and burgeoning access, and in direct contradiction of the promises made by industry in exchange for the access, the U.S. is increasingly dependent on foreign oil and gas," the report states. Otero

New Mexico's Otero Mesa is directly above an aquifer with enough drinking water to serve 800,000 people. (Photo by Stephen Capra courtesy Oil and Gas Accountability Project)
The federal government data that forms the backbone of EWG's investigation details past and current mining and drilling and does not include proposed drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado's Roan Plateau, New Mexico's Otero Mesa, or Wyoming's Red Desert.

Industry claims that resource extraction leaves only a modest and short-lived environmental "footprint" were not substantiated by the EWG analysts, who found instead that harmful impacts up to 200 miles away from drilling and mining sites were well documented.

The report endorses New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's call for a moratorium on oil and gas leases on environmentally sensitive public lands.

"I support the offshore oil and gas leasing moratoriums that the Bush Administration has continued off coastal states including California and Florida," Richardson said during a speech to the National Environmental Trust March 2. "Now I want to ask the coastal states, the Bush administration, and Congress to support leasing moratoriums for some ecologically sensitive onshore areas, as well."

Richardson spoke at the Trust's 10th anniversary celebration, where he received the organization's Environmental Leadership Award.

Richardson said his proposal would protect about 750,000 acres in New Mexico, about one percent of the state's area. The governor has proposed a ban on leasing of more than 600,000 acres at Otero Mesa, an internationally recognized desert grassland area that overlies pristine, untapped groundwater. He has also asked the Bush administration not to conduct oil and gas leasing of 100,000 acres of prime hunting and fishing area in the Valle Vidal.

"I recognize the importance of energy development, and a far larger area remains open to oil and gas leasing," said Richardson, who served as secretary of energy in the Clinton administration.

An oil and gas industry spokesman argued that a moratorium is unnecessary and said a moratorium is not necessary. "He is not recognizing that the federal government has done studies and environmental impact statements to determine what restrictions should occur to protect the environment," Jeff Eshelman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America told the "Washington Times."

The EWG report calls for a national energy plan that will move the U.S. away from drilling, mining, importing and burning fossil fuels.

"Drilling and mining the last remaining pristine lands in the Western U.S. is not the road to energy and mineral independence," the report states. "When it comes to oil and gas, we simply do not have the supplies we need to meet our demand. Remaining supplies of metals are uncertain, but what is clear is that we will contaminate more land and water if we continue irresponsible mining."

"We will protect our natural treasures and become energy and mineral independent only when we invest in efficiency, recycling, clean energy technologies and materials of the future," the EWG says.

The EWG report urges the federal government to protect the last few remaining pristine natural treasures from new mining and drilling.

Among high risk areas that deserve permanent protection are eight special places currently targeted for mines, as documented by Westerners for Responsible Mining, and various lands targeted for expanded oil and gas development, with development plans under vigorous protest by local citizens.

"The value of water, land and wildlife often outweighs the short-term benefit of energy production," the EWG says in its report. "In the immediate future, U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a certainty; as we strive toward a national energy portfolio dominated by clean technologies, we should also set policies that protect the last few remaining treasured American lands from further drilling."

"It doesn't matter if you value these natural treasures as places to play, renew your spirit, ensure clean water or protect wildlife," said Horwitt. "When we drill and mine our natural treasures, we destroy some of the things that make America special. It's time to reclaim these natural treasures as our own."

From the data, EWG has created an interactive, internet atlas that allows the public for the first time to view maps of industry control and see who controls the land in or near each of the parks, forests and wilderness areas surveyed in 13 states. Find it online at: http://www.ewg.org.