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A New Strategy for Managing Public Lands

Congress Should Focus on the Broader Economic Value of Our Public Wilderness

SOURCE: AP/Trust for Public Lands, Maria Grants

Part of the Fleming Ranch was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service for $1.5 million to add to the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California. The purchase is one of 28 in 15 states financed by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded by Congress with fees paid by companies drilling for offshore oil and gas.

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It’s often said that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The “Domestic Energy and Jobs Act,” which is being debated and voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives this week, is a clear example of that adage. This package of seven drilling and energy bills is based on the premise that opening up additional public lands and waters to oil and gas drilling and rolling back decades-old public health laws will put more Americans to work and will decrease the price of gasoline at the pump.

These bills, championed by the House leadership, ignore two important facts:

But there is an even deeper problem with this simplistic vision of “drill, baby, drill.” Promotion of unhinged drilling on public lands and waters—drilling conducted under weak environmental regulations—ignores the other important values of these places. In particular, our taxpayer-owned lands support other types of jobs and economic activities that are at risk of being displaced by a dramatic increase in extractive industries. This includes hunting and fishing, recreation, landscape restoration, and other forms of energy development such as solar, wind, and geothermal.

Energy is a legitimate and important use of our public lands, but rather than prioritizing increased drilling, we need a more comprehensive approach to managing the lands and waters administered by the federal government. If managed wisely, our 700 million acres of public lands can serve multiple national purposes, among them:

  • Addressing our current energy needs
  • Providing places for outdoor recreation
  • Protecting American treasures for future generations
  • Ensuring clean air and water for our nation

Such an approach to public lands management requires that we recognize that “multiple uses” have economic value beyond their ability to put people to work for the oil and gas industries.

Just one example of American businesses that are profiting from conserving and protecting public lands is the outdoor recreation industry. This group includes companies such as Recreational Equipment Inc., L.L. Bean Inc., and Cabela Inc.—companies that make money from Americans’ desire to get outside and play. New research from the Outdoor Industry Association released this month shows that the outdoor recreation industry generates 6.1 million American jobs and $646 billion in spending each year.

This is an extremely large and profitable industry—bigger than pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles and parts, and gasoline and other fuels industries. As the Outdoor Industry Association report notes, “Americans spend nearly as much on snow sports ($53 billion) as they do on Internet access ($54 billion).” Importantly, America’s outdoor industry directly employs more workers than the oil and gas industries by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio. While the outdoor industry employs 6.1 million people, the oil and gas industries employ only 2.1 million people.

As the statistics show, the economic benefits of the outdoor industry are underappreciated, especially when compared to those of drilling. Nevertheless, the extractive industry is clamoring for more. If the rhetoric of the oil and gas industries and their political allies is to be believed, public lands and waters are closed to drilling.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

A tremendous amount of oil and gas production already occurs on public lands and waters. The Energy Information Administration found that oil production from public lands was higher during the first three years of the Obama administration than the last three years of the George W. Bush administration. In 2011 the U.S. Department of the Interior offered approximately 21 million acres offshore and 1.2 million onshore for oil and gas drilling. And in 2011 the Bureau of Land Management held three of the top five largest onshore oil and gas lease sales in the agency’s history. In total the agency held 32 oil and gas lease sales covering 4.4 million acres this past year.

What’s more, oil and gas companies are sitting on federal land leases covering millions of acres. About 26 million acres offshore and more than 20 million acres onshore are currently not being explored or developed by the oil and gas industries.

Many of our federal public lands that have both good fossil fuel resources and outdoor recreation opportunities are in the West. But recent polling by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project shows that 91 percent of voters in the region say that protecting public lands is “essential” to their states’ economies.

In other words, people living in the West agree that more and more drilling isn’t the answer to the region’s economic woes—they know a more comprehensive approach is needed. As we look to the future of energy development on public lands, we must also consider the economic opportunities that could be lost in the other sectors that thrive from public lands.

Rather than continuing to debate the next of dozens of bills to increase drilling and roll back environmental protections, Congress should instead focus on where real economic benefits are accruing—on the protected places that make America special.

Christy Goldfuss is the Public Lands Project Director at the Center for American Progress. Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center. Jessica Goad is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Center’s Public Lands Project.

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