Budget Compromise Impacts Wilderness Conservation

This year's federal budget resolution stripped money for a controversial conservation program. The move put millions of acres of Western lands back on the table for oil and gas drilling. One of those areas is a place called South Shale Ridge, a remote stretch of rugged canyons in western Colorado. The area is prized for its scenery and its natural gas. It's not considered wilderness, but the area has become a battleground over the new Interior Department term "Wild Land."

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A: Wild Lands.

As Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC explains, the status of the Wild Lands is now in limbo.

KIRK SIEGLER: South Shale Ridge is prized for its scenery, assuming you can get to it.

Kurt Kunkle of the Colorado Environmental Coalition is driving on a muddy, rutted out road beneath the ridge. The area is an undeveloped island in the middle of oil and gas country near the Colorado-Utah state line.

KURT KUNKLE: Stuck in ruts.

To travel from here is more efficient on foot. Bushwhacking through dense stems of juniper trees makes for a tough climb, but before long, there are no roads in sight. Kunkle says South Shale Ridge has everything wilderness should, it look untrammeled, wild even, but until Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recent Wild Lands order, he says the Bureau of Land Management couldn't manage it as potential wilderness.

KUNKLE: It's what I think of when I think of wilderness. I have a great affinity for Colorado's gaming country and I love exploring out here.

SIEGLER: Kunkle says protecting places like this is important for this region's tourist and hunting economy. But on the other side of South Shale Ridge, where the cliffs drop dramatically to the valley floor, David Ludlum looks out at the same vista in a very different way.

DAVID LUDLUM: I see an area that's extremely beautiful. I also see an area that at the same time has resource potential.

SIEGLER: Ludlum is executive director of the Western Colorado Oil and Gas Association. He says drilling and the environment has coexisted in places like these for years and the Wild Lands order put everything in economic limbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS)

SIEGLER: A rain shower adds to the sweet smell of sage brush to exhaust fumes at a nearby truck stop along Interstate 70. Some of these trucks are owned by Trevor Taylor's company, Old West Oil Field Services, which hauls water and sand to nearby drill rigs that frack, or hydraulic fracture, natural gas wells.

TREVOR TAYLOR: We're at the mercy of those energy companies. I don't get to go out and just create jobs in places. I only get to work if they're working.

SIEGLER: A couple years ago this part of the country was booming. But a lot of the companies Taylor works for have moved to places where they can drill on private, rather than public land - North Dakota, Pennsylvania. Old West used to employ a hundred people in western Colorado. Now it's down to about 40.

The economy is probably why opposition to the Wild Lands order has been building, says Patty Limerick. She heads the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

PATTY LIMERICK: When we have a recession and we have significant unemployment and we have uncertainty about economic recovery, some of these very nice ideas that we have about nature and respected forum, those just go to the edge of the attention span.

SIEGLER: So back when unemployment was lower than 3 percent in places like western Colorado, Wild Lands might have been more politically viable. Now it hovers at 11 percent and it's looking like a nonstarter, at least in this budget year.

The rider in the bill doesn't extend to next year, but Interior Department officials aren't saying whether they'll give the Wild Lands order another go then.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

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