While the American Exploration & Mining Association was preparing to close one chapter and begin another during its annual conference in Spokane, WA Dec. 3-7, word of a significant victory on an issue that has been important to the association came from the halls of Washington, DC.
On Dec. 6, Joe Balash, assistant secretary of land and minerals management for U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), told a sold out lunch crowd that the DOI had released final drafts of proposed revisions to Obama-era greater sage grouse conservation plans that suggest removing hundreds of thousands of acres of federally protected habitat in Utah, and easing restrictions on energy development and other activities in Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming.
Balash was the keynote speaker during the lunch and spoke about the DOI’s agenda to ease the regulatory burden on mining and other extractive industries and the Trump administration’s multiple use mission for public lands. “We believe that when America’s lands are working, Americans are working,” he said.
The proposal would open hundreds of thousands of acres of grouse habitat in seven western states to oil and gas leasing and mineral exploration and mining. The protections of the sage grouse were put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. The prairie fowl is considered by conservationists to be a key indicator species for America’s dwindling sagebrush ecosystem. The previous plan to protect the ground-dwelling bird imposed restrictions to development in their habitat, but in a concession to business groups fell short of placing them on the endangered species list - a move that would have imposed far more rigid rules.
Mining groups as well as oil drillers and ranchers have long contended that the plan unnecessarily hurt economic development.
“With today’s action we have leaned forward to address the various states’ issues, while appropriately ensuring that we will continue to be focused on meaningfully addressing the threats to the Greater Sage-Grouse,” Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke kicked off the process in 2017 when he ordered a review of protections for the sage grouse to “ensure conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities” - one of numerous reviews of Obama-era environmental protections launched by the Trump administration.
With the plans, the administration wants “to enhance cooperation with the states by modifying the approach to Greater Sage-Grouse management in existing [plans] to better align with individual state plans and/or conservation measures and [Interior] and BLM policy,” the agency said in each of the state-specific documents.