Guest opinion: Balance is absolutely critical

Gregg Heil
Guest Opinion

New government research published last month points to the economic benefits of our parks and public lands — from tourism to energy development. It turns out that the outdoors is big business, generating $371 billion in 2012.

That puts the U.S. Interior Department squarely at No. 3 on the Fortune 500 list (right behind Wal-Mart and Exxon but before Chevron in terms of annual revenues). Could there be a more compelling reason for the Obama administration to restore a balanced approach to energy development and conservation of our public lands?

It turns out that on top of all the direct benefits to the economy, the outdoors, access to public lands, clean air and clean water contribute to another great economic driver — quality of life. In Colorado, the economic impact from our outdoors goes well beyond just tourism dollars. Like many other folks starting and growing businesses in Colorado in other sectors of the economy such as technology and innovation, I have chosen to locate my business here because of the access to our beautiful mountains, streams and quality of life.

In fact, Colorado is picking up the moniker “Silicon Mountains.” We recently ranked second in the nation in entrepreneurism, innovation (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 2012) and high-tech (TechAmerica, 2012). We also ranked as the third-best place to live in the nation (U.S. News & World Report).

In releasing the new study, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, “The missions of the Department of the Interior contribute to our nation’s economy in ways big and small. From the billions in revenues generated from oil and gas development, to the jobs created from tourism to our national parks and public lands, Interior’s activities are an important source of business development and employment for communities and families in all 50 states.”

Putting thoughtful, well-planned oil-and-gas development on public lands in Colorado on equal ground with conservation ensures that a variety of sectors of the economy — energy development, tourism and entrepreneurialism — continue to thrive. No oil company wants to get held up by lawsuits. No outfitter wants to lose his favorite hunting ground because drilling operations scared away the elk. No government official wants to be harangued at public meetings about poorly sited leases. And no tech or innovation company employee who moved here for the quality of life and the outdoors wants to find that drilling is given priority over conservation on our public lands.

A new report from the Center for American Progress offers a common-sense recommendation: The interior secretary should mandate that all oil-and-gas planning consider any potential implications on recreation and conservation.

You might wonder why this isn’t being done already, since it is in the best interest of all parties. It turns out that while policy reforms that encouraged public input and responsible siting were proposed in 2010, some local officials are ignoring them. Under this administration, 2 1/2 times as many acres of public lands have been leased for oil and gas as have been conserved for the public.

But now we have compelling economic data from the government itself offering cause for restoring balance to that equation.

To do it, Jewell could support local businesses, sportsmen’s organizations, community leaders and agency staff working to conserve prized backcountry areas such as Thompson Divide here in the Roaring Fork Valley, Browns Canyon in the Arkansas Valley or Hermosa Creek north of Durango.

Jewell also might consider the recommendation to mandate that any planning process around oil-and-gas development on public lands consider potential conservation and recreation impacts. As both a former oil-industry engineer and CEO of REI, she might not need much convincing — she understands this concept of balance intrinsically. At her March confirmation hearing, she said, “Balance is absolutely critical. If confirmed for this position, I will use the best science available to harness our economic potential, preserving their multiple uses for current generations and future generations.”

With Jewell’s leadership, we can put conservation on equal footing with energy development again, and seize the economic potential of our outdoor heritage to benefit big business, entrepreneurs like me, taxpayers and our kids and grandkids.

Gregg Heil is founder and CEO of Aspen-based