President Donald Trump is visiting Colorado Springs today. He arrives as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as part of his federal Department of the Interior, takes aim at regulations in place protecting millions of acres of public land cherished by millions of Coloradans, westerners, and an adaptable, dancing bird, which, like me, calls sagebrush country home.
I always felt my birthright as an American consisted of two great parts—freedom, and, to me, the source of that freedom: the amazing legacy of American public lands. These lands managed by the American government—owned by you and I. Those millions of acres of land are our national heritage, becoming part of the legacy that we pass on to our kids. Unfortunately, the federal administration does not respect this important birthright as they’ve unabashedly prioritized the needs of a handful of special interests and are continuing to make decisions that are dramatically changing what these public land look like. Through consistent policies and actions, they’ve shut out the ranchers, hunters, anglers, hikers, and others who live and work on or near these lands every day—not to mention sage-grouse and other wildlife that are completely dependent on healthy sagebrush country. Those species need the land, and we need them.
Even in the decade and a half that I’ve overseen the work of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, I’ve seen thousands of acres of privately held sagebrush habitat bulldozed, chained away or mowed, until the vast majority of what’s left sits on public lands. Those of us who live here know the value of the stands of sage in this arid steppe land.
Head out for a ride or a hike in early springtime, and you’ll see a familiar sight: berms of snow piled up around each group of sagebrush plants. That snow slowly melts into the soil, keeping the high desert moist and making water available for the species that live or graze there, ultimately traveling through these swaths of sagebrush country to water our growing western communities and cities. The water slowly trickling from stands of sage provides anglers with the opportunity to fish; the insects that feed those fish along with hundreds of bird species; and ensures the migrations of elk, deer, and other grazing mammals, maintained by these stopover sites along their migration corridors.
I can’t think of any landscape more iconic to us as a nation. It’s incredibly important that we all be wary today, as the President visits this critical region, of his administration’s blinkered view of how to manage our public lands: leasing them for fossil fuel exploration at bargain-basement prices to serve their own short-sighted political gains. Audubon has not said we should prohibit energy development on our nation’s public lands, but it must be done right. And what is happening right now is so far from being right that it is truly jeopardizing the very legacy that we are leaving future generations. The policy changes are robbing the American people of their public lands legacy to sell off the mineral rights for a dollar per acre.
In Wyoming, working alongside state leaders, energy developers, ranchers, sportsmen, and the many that care about sage-grouse and the future of sagebrush country—we developed a balanced plan that folks could really get behind. We staved off the worst of the disturbance to the bird’s habitat by limiting petroleum well pads to no more than one per square mile. That resulted in a 65 percent reduction in conventional drilling and a 1600 percent increase in directional drilling. Those approaches—that helped us keep the Greater Sage-Grouse off the endangered species list—are being tossed aside. Large swaths of public lands are being sold off, never to be returned to their original value because this area just does not bounce back once disturbed. It’s possible to keep those restrictions in place to benefit everyone, and to prioritize leasing outside of critical habitats valued by millions of westerners.
As the president visits our region, we call on him to respect that and the values that Americans hold dear.