Westerners head to Congress to testify on energy boom’s threats

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Democratic Rep. Dan Gibbs, outside the State Capitol in downtown Denver, will join a gorup of Westerners in testifying before Congress this week about energy development and conservation of wildlife habitat. (David Zalubowski/AP)

DENVER ” Congress is asking Westerners to talk about their efforts to protect wildlife and the interests of hunters and anglers in the face of the energy boom cascading through the Rockies from Montana to New Mexico.

Dan Gibbs, Eagle County’s Democratic state representative, plans to be there. He’s sponsoring legislation to minimize drilling’s impact on state and private land and hopes Congress will do the same for federally owned land.

“It’s a big part of our heritage and culture,” Gibbs said of the hunting and fishing industries. “If we continue to develop the way we’re developing, we’re going to lose much of our heritage.”

Gibbs, a former staffer for Rep. Mark Udall, Eagle County’s congressman, is among seven people, including an energy company official, invited to speak Tuesday before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. The topic: Conflicts between sportsmen and energy developers on federal lands.

Committee member Udall said he and other Western lawmakers had long requested such hearings but were turned down when Republicans controlled Congress. California Republican Richard Pombo headed the committee that writes many environmental laws until he lost his bid for an eighth term in November.

Pombo topped environmentalists’ political hit lists because he supported energy development, selling public lands and overhauling the Endangered Species Act. National groups spent more than $1 million to unseat him.

Now, Udall said he believes Congress might look at state initiatives like the one Gibbs is sponsoring.

Westerners want to do their part in supplying the country with energy, he emphasized.

“But we shouldn’t be put in a position where our very way of life is diminished or even eliminated because we’ve done our part,” Udall said.

Sportsmen’s concern over access to public lands because of expanding oil and gas development prompted the hearing, said committee chairman Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

“This hearing is planned as a forum for the folks who want to ensure that public lands continue to provide hunting and fishing opportunities for future generations,” Rahall said in a written statement.

That goal has united the “hook and bullet” crowd – anglers and hunters – with environmentalists who don’t want to see energy development overwhelm public lands, which make up 30 percent or more of many Rocky Mountain states.

The unlikely allies have rallied around such spots as the Wyoming Range in western Wyoming, the Roan Plateau in western Colorado and the Otero Mesa in southeastern New Mexico – all considered significant sources of oil and gas as well as important wildlife habitat.

Rollin Sparrowe of Daniel, Wyo., a former chief of wildlife research for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plans to testify Tuesday. He said he thinks it’s time “to give wildlife a break.”

“I think there is a lot of interest in Congress in what’s going on,” Sparrowe said.

To boost domestic energy production, the Bush administration has tried to streamline approvals for drilling on federal land. Conservation and outdoor groups say streamlining amounts to steamrolling the environment, while companies complain that environmentalists’ lawsuits and government bureaucracy frustrate the streamlining process and bog down development.

“From Montana to New Mexico, it’s all the same game,” said Oscar Simpson, a former state and oil gas regulator now with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “The (Bureau of Land Management’s) mandate is to lease it regardless of the impacts.”

In Colorado, home to some of the country’s largest elk and mule deer herds, 55 hunting, fishing and conservation groups have endorsed the guidelines in Gibbs’ bill, which include reducing the impact on land through advanced drilling techniques. The proposal was originally drafted by the Colorado Mule Deer Association and Colorado Wildlife Federation.

In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson is leading work on guidelines for energy development in wildlife areas.

And in Wyoming, Gov. Dave Freudenthal sponsored a resolution – passed by the Western Governors’ Association – asking Congress to repeal a section of the federal energy law that exempts some oil and gas development in wildlife areas from further environmental review.

Hunting, fishing and tourism contribute at least $2 billion a year to Wyoming’s economy, Freudenthal said.

“It’s interwoven with the fabric of who we are,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that people don’t live in Wyoming or visit Wyoming because they want to go to the opera.”

Industry officials say companies are using better technology and are working with conservationists and wildlife agencies to minimize the impact of drilling rigs, new roads and truck traffic. They contend that, despite the limited exemptions, existing law adequately protects habitat.

“Most of the drilling that occurs in the intermountain West is done with independent gas companies whose people live and work in the areas where they develop they develop,” said Marc Smith, executive director of the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. “We’re deeply interested in doing energy development right.”