Balancing Recreation and Energy Development — Part 5: Solutions and Policy Recommendations

The recent whitepaper published by Public Land Solutions’ illustrates how public land managers can best balance recreation and energy development. This is the fifth installment of six weekly posts from the Best Practices for Balancing Recreation and Energy Development on Our Public Lands report. This post looks at Solutions and Policy Recommendations: Planning Tools, Implementation of Best Practices and Improved Technologies, Engaging the Public and Key Stakeholders Early and Often in Planning for Energy Development. Come back next week for a recap of Best Practices for Balancing Recreation and Energy Development on Our Public Lands.

Oil Truck

Part 5. Solutions and Policy Recommendations

As noted in this report, competing uses can sometimes diminish the recreation experience. However, there exist several planning tools, best practices, improved technologies, and public engagement strategies that federal land managers and local communities adjacent to BLM and USFS lands can employ to safeguard recreation resources and support lasting recreation economies. Smart from the start planning tools such as Master Leasing Plans are an established, proven mechanism for protecting recreation assets on BLM lands while bringing diverse local stakeholders together to achieve, balanced common-sense solutions.

A. Planning Tools

Several planning tools exist that can help effectively balance energy development and the need to protect and enhance recreation opportunities.

Master Leasing Plans

A Master Leasing Plan is a proven approach from the BLM that helps minimize conflicts and achieve an optimal balance between development and the protection of outdoor recreation and other multiple uses. Master Leasing Plans are already helping to resolve long-standing conflicts between development and outdoor recreation in several places around the West, including around Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Arches National Park in Utah.

Oil Pump Jack

Master Leasing Plans work by employing a smart from the start process that includes early and often coordination with local stakeholders, including recreation users and businesses that may be operating in the planning area. This coordination, along with creative approaches to managing development and resolving conflicts, are the hallmark of MLPs which allow operators to efficiently develop oil and gas resources without encountering surprises such as the presence of bike trails or the realization that a well pad is within the viewshed of a nearby state or national park. This also provides recreation-focused businesses and communities with the certainty that development will not harm key recreation assets that attract tourists and generate important revenue. By identifying and analyzing these concerns up front and developing a leasing plan that addresses these issues before a parcel is auctioned and a lease is awarded, development can proceed more efficiently.

Moab MLP Support Letter

In many cases, what is best for the operator is also best for the recreation asset. In places where existing well pads are present, directional drilling from these pads can be cost effective while limiting additional surface occupancy on nearby areas. Appropriate well pad design in terms of tank height, paint color, and utilization of natural features such as ridge lines and natural depressions can also be identified more effectively if potential effects on viewsheds are determined in advance. These kind of measures can be mapped out in an MLP, such as the widely supported plan for the Moab area which provides ample opportunities for new resource development while also protecting the popular recreation locations that bring visitors back to Moab every year. In Moab, local residents and businesses know their recreation amenities form the bedrock of the highly successful local recreation economy which brings in over $200 million each year, and this is why local government and 75 Utah-based businesses enthusiastically supported this plan.

Moab MLP Business Supporters

Other Conflict-Avoiding Planning Tools

To avoid problems between competing multiple uses the BLM can guide energy development and limit negative impacts on recreation and other non-energy resources by utilizing planning tools that are specifically designed to avoid conflicts and ensure an appropriate balance between outdoor recreation, development and other multiples uses of the public lands. By including the types of details included in the MLP process, a large variety of conflicts and development challenges can be avoided, thereby allowing communities to have the benefit of resource development and begin preparing for increased demand for outdoor access. Some additional measures that BLM can use and has successfully used to protect recreational resources include:

Master Development Plans and Unit Agreements

In areas where a significant amount of new drilling is expected, the BLM can require that operators and lessees coordinate construction of new roads, rigs and other infrastructure to minimize impacts to recreation resources and the broader landscape. Master Development Plans can provide a more localized blueprint for coordinated drilling and development activity on a smaller scale than a Master Leasing Plan. A Master Development Plan addresses two or more applications for a permit to drill (APDs) that share a common drilling plan (Surface Use Plan of Operations, and plans for future development and production).

Submitting a Master Development Plan facilitates early planning, orderly development, and the cumulative effects analysis for all the APDs expected to be drilled by an operator in a developing field. For example, as part of a new planning process the BLM is currently considering the use of Master Development Plans to reduce impacts to water resources that are popular with anglers in the South Park area of Colorado, where hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation are generating almost $17 million in annual revenues. BLM is also requiring the use of MDPs around Dinosaur National Monument as a means of limiting infrastructure and visual and auditory impacts.

Similarly, where oil and gas operators are accessing a common reservoir of minerals, BLM can require, or operators can voluntarily agree, to “unitize” their leases. Under a unit agreement, multiple leaseholders agree to cooperatively develop minerals, which generally reduces the amount of wells and other infrastructure required. This in turn can minimize conflicts with other multiple uses. Master development plans and unit agreements are both planning tools that, when used appropriately and include specific protections for outdoor recreation and other multiple uses, can reduce conflicts in areas projected for high resource development.

Development Density Limits

In recreational areas open to energy development, BLM can limit the allowable density of well pads, production facilities, pipelines and utilities to protect recreational uses and experiences. The BLM is currently considering this type of development density restriction to protect recreation areas on federal lands in the San Rafael Desert west of Canyonlands National Park.

Phased Leasing and Development

Phased leasing and development allow the BLM to prioritize new leasing and energy development authorizations on lands with industry interest and high potential for successful energy development and low levels of conflict with other resource values. BLM adopted such an approach in the Dinosaur Trail MLP, where it has prioritized leasing on higher development potential lands away from Dinosaur National Monument before leasing on lands with lower potential for successful development and closer to the Monument. Similarly, in the Absaroka Front, where migrating herds of big game from the nearby Yellowstone National Park attract sportsmen and wildlife watchers from across the country, the BLM is employing phased leasing to limit development in the most important habitats. By issuing leases incrementally through a strategic geographic approach, land managers can limit the degree of impacts to a planning area while also allowing for responsible resource development.

Oil Field

All of these planning tools provide land managers an opportunity to better analyze planning areas through landscape level plans and consider ahead of time whether conflicts between multiple uses can be reduced or eliminated. In particular, MLPs are proven effective strategies for ensuring that appropriate oil and gas development can go forward while protecting recreation experiences.

B. Implementation of Best Practices and Improved Technologies

After the planning stage when development proposals are made, the BLM and operators can also limit impacts to nearby recreational resources by adopting best management practices and improved technologies. A range of options is available to federal land managers and oil and gas developers to minimize their impacts to local communities and other public land uses, including:

  • Alternatives to pits used to store hydraulic fracturing fluids, produced water, and other drilling materials; containment tanks or closed loop drilling systems should be considered
  • Directional drilling to minimize surface occupancy and consolidate drill rigs and pumps as a means of limiting surface impacts
  • Technologies that minimize methane leaking and flaring to prevent wasteful, unnecessary and harmful emissions, and reduce light pollution
  • Other strategies to limit air, noise, and water pollution, and to limit visual impacts
Methane Flaring

These best management practices, which can and should be evaluated at the development stage given BLM’s broad authority and obligation to manage for outdoor recreation and other multiple uses, are all drilling/development techniques that allow for smaller surface disturbance, the ability to access multiple locations in a reservoir, and reduce emissions and impacts on recreation assets while simultaneously helping to avoid conflicts and costly delays.

C. Engaging the Public and Key Stakeholders Early and Often in Planning for Energy Development

Land managers should consider creating communication opportunities for recreation interests, business owners and investors, and resource extraction companies to optimize multiple land uses and foresee and address potential conflicts with energy development. Through detailed on the ground conversations with stakeholders knowledgeable about local needs and conditions, many conflicts can be avoided and stakeholder goals maximized.

Community Workshops

A productive method that land managers can pursue is to conduct — themselves or with a 3rd party facilitator — workshops bringing together a wide range of stakeholders to discuss proposed plans for energy development on public lands. Many communities, like Moab, Utah, boast popular recreation opportunities in addition to significant potential for energy development. In an effort to assess current and future land uses in the Moab area the BLM pursued its Master Leasing Plan to provide planning and analysis prior to new leasing of oil, gas and potash. To support this community conversation and collaborative process, the Keystone Policy Center facilitated two Moab Master Leasing Plan Stakeholder Mapping workshops in 2014 that were independent of the BLM’s formal MLP process. These workshops brought together a comprehensive range stakeholders, along with federal land managers, to share and discuss map data layers reflecting their conservation, recreation, and energy and mineral development interests within the Moab MLP area. The workshops enabled participants to better understand the various concerns and interests held by each stakeholder.

Keystone’s work resulted in a final report in April 2014 outlining the various stakeholders’ detailed needs and perspectives on specific regions within the MLP planning area ahead of the BLM’s formal process. This in turn greatly informed the BLM’s decision making process, brought meaningful protections to recreation experiences, and avoided unnecessary conflicts between outdoor enthusiasts and energy developers in the region.

Enhancing Information Sharing and NEPA Processes

The BLM has in place a strong foundation for providing the public with information and opportunities to engage in the NEPA process for proposed energy development. This includes several opportunities for the public and key stakeholders to review and provide comments on proposed leases and the preparation of environmental analyses for those leases. The BLM also shares critical information, including GIS data, maps, and reports about proposed leases, that allows recreation users and businesses to identify potential conflicts, such as mountain bike trails, camping areas, and OHV routes before leases are issued. Doing so not only helps ensure that BLM has the right protections in place for recreations assets, but also avoids conflicts down the road when leases are proposed for development. The BLM should build on this existing framework to enhance the information that is being shared with the public about development proposals, and create more and better opportunities to engage with the public and stakeholders.

County Public Land Officials

To date many counties that are fortunate enough to have full time public land employees, do not include recreation management in that person’s job description. Traditionally, industry representatives have been much more present and engaged in county activities and have thus been the primary focus of county public land officials. However, as local businesses and their investors learn more about risks to recreation assets on public lands which could affect their investment or relocation decisions, they will be increasingly active at the county level. Similar trends are being seen with recreation groups, such as mountain biking or climbing clubs and advocacy groups. Counties have the opportunity to be liaisons to recreation interests and take responsible steps to protect income-generating recreation assets on nearby public lands.

But this will require an explicit commitment by local governments to require public land officials to communicate regularly, not just with extractive industry representatives, but also with recreation interests and others who depend on our public lands. In addition, counties should take steps to support policies that foster a supportive business environment for outdoor recreation, including the protection of recreation assets. An example of this is in Utah’s Emery County where a full-time staff position actively conducts field checks and monitors a wide range of activities to optimize public land uses and ensure that development proposals do not unnecessarily conflict with other uses such as recreation and events.

County Sponsored Public Land Committees

County sponsored public land committees are generally populated by volunteers, sometimes with a paid volunteer coordinator. Often they begin with a particular focus on trails for both motorized and non-motorized use, but on occasion the need for additional public land discussion can lead to groups with a broader focus. Monthly committee meetings allow the public to interface with county and public land officials at regular intervals, as opposed to only when there is a crisis or during an official public comment period. Information exchanged and relationships built via county sponsored public land committees, can provide a regular platform to optimize the needs of all public land users including groups involved in conservation, recreation, and resource extraction. An example of this type of county-based trails committee is the Grand County-sponsored Trailmix committee based in Moab, Utah.

Supporting State Recreation Directors

Public land decisions greatly affect nearby communities, and more and more states are hiring recreation directors to lead projects related to economic development in their states, and to coordinate with state energy departments. Currently Washington, Colorado and Utah have state recreation directors; these officials work to better incorporate the recreation economy needs of their communities with those of industry for improved longterm public land management. By working to recognize and address the changing needs of the public land system, state recreation directors can coordinate the needs of the industry with those of the growing recreation economy.

The White Rim, Canyonlands, Utah

Check back here next week for a wrap up of our whitepaper on Balancing Recreation and Energy Development on Our Public Lands. Learn more about Public Land Solutions here.