Babbitt says public lands conservation lagging under Obama

Dirt roads connect drilling sites in the Jonah gas field on federal land in Sublette County, Wyo.
(Laura Rauch / Associated Press)

Saying that President Obama is lagging behind even some of his Republican predecessors in protecting public lands, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is urging the administration to put more federal land off limits to energy and other resource development.

In a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, Babbitt, head of the Interior Department under President Clinton, pointed out that during Obama’s first term, the administration leased more than twice as much federal acreage for gas and oil development than was protected as wilderness.

“As we hear more and more strident demands for accelerated leasing and increased production, we should pause to ask: ‘What about conservation? Where is the balance?’ ” Babbitt said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.


He added that oil and gas production exacts a toll on public lands. “Roads carve up and fragment the landscape. Streams are polluted and fisheries endangered. Sportsmen lose the backcountry places best for hunting. Archaeological sites are compromised, wildlife habitat degraded. Entire landscapes and ecosystems are despoiled ... ”

In contrast to the nearly 18 million acres protected through administrative or congressional action under President George H.W. Bush, Babbitt said only about 2.6 million acres were set aside during Obama’s first term.

While praising Obama for his actions on fuel efficiency standards and renewable energy and his attention to greenhouse gases, Babbitt said the administration needed to step up land conservation efforts.

He proposed that for every acre of public land leased for oil and gas development, one acre should be permanently protected.

Acknowledging the difficulty of getting wilderness legislation through the GOP-dominated House, Babbitt suggested Obama use his executive powers to create new national monuments -- a tool Clinton used extensively during his final term, winning the praise of environmentalists but the condemnation of conservative Republicans.