Interior Secretary discusses energy development, endangered species

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Laura Lundquist

The Department of the Interior has plans for managing energy development on public lands, saving species and helping Native Americans, but in a time of constrained budgets, it’s going to need help from the public, according to the Secretary of the Interior.

On Friday night, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined Sen. Jon Tester for a question-and-answer session on the future of public lands and endangered species as part of the Wheeler Center for the Exploration of Montana Issues lecture series.

Nicol Rae, dean of the College of Letters and Science, asked a wide range of questions dealing with Interior Department responsibilities before putting it out to the audience of more than 300 people in Gaines Hall at Montana State University.

On the perceived tug-of-war between conservation and development, Jewell said development and conservation could both exist if the interested parties would participate in thoughtful planning.

Jewell said many Montanans – sportsmen, conservationists, ranchers and farmers – have come to the table to find that middle ground.

As an example, she pointed to Montana’s Crown of the Continent project with its conservation easements that help preserve a broader landscape to serve as wildlife migration corridors.

“It’s that kind of landscape-level understanding that we have to do around the country and Montana is a model,” Jewell said.

Tester said development, particularly energy development, needs to continue, but it should be done in an intelligent manner to keep some of the treasured parts of the state.

“There are some places where development would be a poor choice, the Rocky Mountain Front being one,” Tester said. “If we aren’t proactive about how we deal with these treasured landscapes, they will be gone.”

Jewell, a former petroleum engineer, said that the Interior Department was trying to increase permitting for renewable energy projects on public lands – 50 have received permits since 2009 – to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels. But they have their own effects on wildlife, and the switch can’t happen overnight.

The only order Jewell has issued so far is a directive to look at energy development and conservation swaps on a landscape scale. If development is allowed in one area, Jewell said, another pristine area should be set aside far enough away from the development that it won’t be affected.

Tester agreed, adding that some North Dakota farmers told him that the thing that was missing from the Bakken oil fields was planning.

Going beyond that, Jewell said, the American public should endeavor to conserve more resources, whether it’s water or energy, and demand more sustainable behavior from businesses.

“It’s complicated, it’s long term. But we’re on a constructive track and we’re going to continue,” Jewell said. “But you’ll continue to see conventional energy development. But we’ll do it in a way that’s safe and responsible.”

Asked about Endangered Species Act listings such as the wolf and the sage grouse, Jewell said it is the area of greatest controversy in the Interior Department, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must be dispassionate and use the best available science.

The delisting of the gray wolf was proposed because the species is not in danger of going extinct, even though it hasn’t been fully restored to its historic range, Jewell said.

“Emotions run high around the ESA on both sides. But it is a law that has been very effective in opening our eyes to our ecosystems and their interdependencies,” Jewell said.

The Department of the Interior and all the agencies it oversees – the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the bureaus of Land Management, Reclamation and Indian Affairs – are facing three difficult trends, Jewell said: constrained financial resources, climate change and upcoming generations that are more disconnected from the outdoors.

Knowing that a significant amount of the department’s workforce is eligible for retirement within five years, Jewell said she has a four-tiered plan to get youth more engaged in the outdoor recreation.

But she asked the audience to help get youth interested.

“We are seeing a growing disconnect on every level between children and nature. It’s a huge problem,” Jewell said. “I am charging my colleagues to prioritize programs that welcome young people in.”

Jewell was making a brief tour of Montana after a week of witnessing the struggles of farmers and cities during California’s devastating drought.

The discussion will be broadcast within a few weeks on Montana PBS.