PARACHUTE, Colo. -- The last sanctuary of the West Douglas wild horse herd is a desolate, forbidding place, which is just how the horses like it. As many as 60 skittish sorrels and bays make their home on the steeper slopes and stony ridges north of here, abandoning the valleys to growing throngs of oil and gas men looking for places to drill.
Now, even this refuge may soon be lost. The U.S. Interior Department, which has leased 93 percent of the horses' preserve to energy companies, recently unveiled plans for evicting the entire herd. Under the proposal, the animals will be rounded up with nets and tranquilizer darts and then hauled away for adoption. The reason cited: Wild horses are incompatible with the region's intensive gas production.
The removal of the horses, if accomplished, will be little felt outside the area. But the move to strip Colorado's West Douglas Herd Area of its only herd is emblematic of a larger effort underway to rewrite the rules governing millions of acres of undeveloped federal lands in the West. With few exceptions, the changes decisively favor energy development at a cost of reduced protections for some of the country's last wild spaces, a Washington Post analysis shows.
From his first days in Washington, President Bush has built an environmental record marked by extraordinary controversy, with decisions that have outraged environmentalists while drawing praise from industry trade groups and political conservatives.
In the view of the administration and its supporters, Bush's solutions to problems such as global warming and mercury pollution reflect pragmatism and a preference for consensus over confrontation. Opponents contend that Bush's policies unabashedly favor industry at the expense of the environment. With support from Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress, environmentalists have rallied to block or stall several key initiatives, including a high-profile effort to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
But the administration's most enduring environmental legacy may lie here in the West, where a series of policy decisions and little-noticed administrative actions have eased development restrictions on millions of acres of federal lands. More than 60 million acres -- an area twice the size of Virginia -- are more vulnerable to logging or drilling as a result of policies that weakened federal restrictions on their development. Other administration actions have made it harder for government officials to apply the most stringent protections to federal wild lands. As part of a legal settlement reached last year with Utah, the administration banned government workers from surveying public lands to identify areas worthy of being set aside by Congress as federal preserves off-limits to development of any kind. More than 3 million acres that had been nominated for a congressional designation lost their protected status.
In addition, Interior officials have worked rapidly to revise dozens of federal land-use plans. The documents, developed without congressional oversight, determine whether large swaths of federal territory will be protected or thrown open to businesses seeking gas, oil, grazing lands or timber.
Under the Bush presidency, this little-known policy tool is being used to increase energy companies' access to federal lands, an analysis of the documents shows. Draft plans that have been made public in the past year would open millions of acres that were previously off-limits to drilling.
The actions fulfill a pledge by Bush three years ago to squeeze more oil and gas from federal lands, reducing at least slightly the country's dependence on imported energy. In interviews, White House and senior Interior officials strongly defended the administration's policies and insisted there would be no wholesale sacrifice of wilderness lands for the sake of energy development.
"It is our obligation to use the land wisely, and sometimes not to use it at all," said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He said Bush had replaced some of the "extreme" and "top-down" programs of the Clinton administration with more flexible policies that allowed state and local governments to help decide how nearby federal lands would be used. "We have a strong commitment to preserving roadless areas," he said.
Connaughton and other administration officials contend that Bush has forged a robust environmental legacy that includes protecting forests from wildfires and promoting wetlands preservation. The officials also pointed to recent decisions, announced as the presidential election approaches, to temporarily halt new gas and oil leases in some sensitive areas and to designate a new national park in Colorado's Great Sand Dunes desert. At the same time, they said, Bush takes seriously the congressional mandate to tap into the energy riches hidden beneath federal lands.
"Encouraging [energy] production is something important to the administration because it's so fundamental to our economy -- but it is not our sole focus," said Rebecca Watson, assistant interior secretary for land and minerals management. "Many times it's portrayed as the administration ramming this through and running over people. We're trying to take a thoughtful, measured approach."
Energy executives support the administration's actions. Some say the Bush White House is merely correcting an imbalance that occurred under President Bill Clinton. Applications for permits to drill stalled under Clinton, said Lee Fuller, vice president for government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
"The Bush administration sees the domestic development of oil and gas as a priority," Fuller said. "Energy has as much right in the hierarchy of decision making about the use of these lands as any other uses. That's one of the principal shifts with the Bush administration."
But that shift has triggered outrage from environmentalists and consternation among many former and current Interior Department professionals. John D. Leshy, the department's solicitor under Clinton, blasted the current administration's approach as a "throwback to the 19th century's Gilded Age."
Leshy added, "Sifting through its decisions in this area produces only a single common, explanatory thread, a sense that its political appointees ask one basic question: 'What does industry want?' "
Also criticizing the changing priorities are groups that compete with energy companies for use of federal lands, including conservative-leaning ranchers and outdoorsmen as well as the fast-growing recreation industry. Governors of two western states that rely on the energy industry for jobs and revenue have filed legal challenges charging that the Bush administration's pro-energy policies are hurting other economic sectors.
"The federal government needs to take the thumb off the scale," Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal, a Democrat, said of the administration in an interview. "Right now the thumb is on the side of mineral development. That thumb is really big."
Taxpayers' 260 Million Acres
The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management is the nation's largest landlord. It supervises more than 260 million acres of taxpayer-owned land. Its turf includes virtually every type of landscape imaginable, including Alaskan tundra, Utah salt flats and the canyon lands of Colorado, where wild horses roam.
The BLM's endless expanses also contain large stands of timber, prime grassland for cattle grazing, and, beneath it all, vast deposits of coal, minerals, oil and natural gas. And there is more still: hiking trails, trout streams, white-water rapids, and rare habitats for plant and animal species that exist nowhere else on earth.
By congressional mandate, BLM lands are managed for "multiple use," meaning they are potentially available for outdoor recreation and what the agency calls "solitude" as well as for resource extraction. The bureau's job is to balance the competing interests. Both critics and defenders of the agency acknowledge that the scales recently have tipped in industry's favor.
While the annual number of new leases by oil and gas companies is down from historic highs in the mid-1990s, the amount of acreage under lease is up 16 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, approved permits for new wells have soared under Bush, from slightly more than1,900 wells four years ago to nearly 6,000 in the current fiscal year. Energy industry officials say higher prices and greater demand help fuel the rise. But so does a president who, since the first days of his administration, has made no secret of his intention to promote energy production.
The White House issued a pair of executive orders in the first four months of Bush's presidency directing federal agencies to "expedite energy projects" on public lands and requiring a written explanation of any actions that adversely affect energy production. The president, a former oilman, also appointed former energy company executives, lobbyists and lawyers to key positions overseeing public lands. Both J. Steven Griles, the No. 2 official at the Interior Department, and Watson had worked on behalf of oil and gas companies operating on Interior lands.
Department memos and internal documents reveal how the new emphasis on energy translated into action.
"The current administration has assigned a high priority to oil and gas exploration . . . including increased access to oil and gas resources on public lands and expedited processing of federal drilling permits," a senior BLM official said in a memo to staff members written in January 2002.
In other documents in 2002 and 2003, BLM and Interior officials offer awards and incentives to field office employees who work "diligently" and "creatively" to speed approval of new drilling permits. In January of this year, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton challenged Wyoming BLM workers to triple the number of drilling permits approved annually, from 1,000 to 3,000 a year. Pressure to crank out more permits faster of was blamed for an unusually high number resignations in some BLM offices, according to agency officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Yet industry officials still complained that too many areas remained off-limits. Some blamed outdated land-management plans, the documents that set rules for federal lands in the same way zoning codes do in cities and towns. Most of the 162 management plans covering scores of BLM districts across a dozen states had not been revised in three decades. The plans were badly out of date -- a problem the Clinton administration recognized and began to correct, according to David Alberswerth, a former Interior Department senior adviser.
"We were looking at a host of reasons to update the plans: new endangered species, proposed new national monuments," said Alberswerth, now BLM program director for the Wilderness Society. "Bush grasped the fact that if the new administration wanted to increase oil and gas use, they'd also have to modernize the plans."
In February 2002, the BLM launched an effort to rapidly update all the agency's management plans, setting a goal to revise all 162 within a decade. But first, the agency decided to select a group of "time-sensitive" plans that were considered high priorities, either because of court-imposed deadlines or perceived opportunities to "facilitate energy development," BLM records state.
While past plans had been written by BLM employees themselves, an internal BLM study shows that virtually all the new ones were being drawn up by corporations, including several large multinational consulting firms with extensive government contracts. In an internal survey last year, BLM employees were generally happy to delegate the work, though some expressed concerns about perceived biases on the part of the contractors.
"In some cases, the contractor seemed to be operating on their own agenda," a report summarizing the survey stated.
Huge Opportunities for Industry
Twenty-one BLM districts were picked in 2002 to receive the first updated plans. Some, such as the Jack Morrow Hills in Wyoming, a 620,000-acre rainbow-colored high desert known for its towering buttes and 2,000-year-old native rock paintings, had been mostly off-limits to oil and gas companies. Others, such as Wyoming's gas-rich Pinedale district, allowed restricted drilling.
Draft documents that have been released for some of the districts call for changes that translate into immensely greater opportunities for energy companies.
The Jack Morrow Hills draft plan, for example, calls for opening about 63 percent of the land for gas and oil leases. In New Mexico's Otero Mesa region, a new management plan would allow drilling in about 94 percent of land that is home to herds of pronghorn antelopes, prairie dogs and the nation's largest stands of Chihuahuan desert grasses.
In central Utah's Price district, a newly released draft plan would lift restrictions on 77 percent of the district's 2.5 million acres, including more than a million acres that had been proposed for federal wilderness protection in the 1990s. Among the formerly protected areas that could now sprout oil fields are Desolation Canyon, whose narrow gorges and white-water rapids are treasured by kayakers, and the spectacular 1,000-foot-high Book Cliffs, the world's longest continuous escarpment.
Locals have fiercely resisted each of the plans.
"You can't make new wilderness," said Liz Thomas, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance who is fighting to preserve the 3 million-acre wilderness that lost protection after the Bush administration's April 2003 settlement with Utah. "There are other areas in Utah where it makes sense to drill because the pipelines and infrastructure are in place. Here, there's none of that. I can't see how allowing one oil company to make money is worth destroying all this scenery," Thomas said.
Energy industry officials counter that their desire to drill is in keeping with the part of the law that requires "multiple use" of BLM lands. Fuller, of the petroleum trade association, says environmentalists fight over every acre, scenic or not. "We're not talking about parks," he said.
But Peter Aengst, oil and gas campaign coordinator for the Wilderness Society, said oil companies have access to most federal lands. He noted that a 2002 federal study of five mountain states -- Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- showed that just 15 percent of the land containing proven oil reserves -- and 12 percent of the proven gas reserves -- are now off-limits.
"Why," Aengst asked, "do we need to be going into that last 5 or 10 percent that's really sensitive?"
Debate Over the Roan Plateau
In west-central Colorado near the town of Rifle, a latticework of hundreds of gas wells and service roads in the energy-rich Piceance Basin ends abruptly at the foot of the Roan Plateau, which vaults 3,500 feet above the Colorado River valley. From this vantage, the stakes in the national debate over federal wild lands come into stark relief.
The plateau's white-shale cliffs support a summit that is an undeveloped island of green -- 73,000 acres of virgin aspen forests and trout-rich streams. But it may not remain so for long. Energy companies want the natural gas that sits under the plateau. The Interior Department, which received title to the land in 1997, intends to grant access to at least some of it. The details await one of the 21 "time-sensitive" management plans now under development at the BLM.
Local BLM officials know well the many natural treasures of the plateau. Elk herds and rare plant communities abound. The mountain streams are populated by a species of cutthroat trout of unusually high genetic purity. During a visit to the plateau on a cloudless midsummer morning, Steve Bennett, an assistant BLM field manager in Colorado, said the government is trying to craft a plan that would satisfy both local communities and energy companies, who were promised access to the plateau when Congress turned over the deed to the BLM seven years ago.
"We're looking for consensus," Bennett said as his SUV bounced along one of the plateau's few dirt roads, kicking up dust and sending dozens of chipmunks scurrying. "The urgency to lease the top of the plateau can be debated. But we feel that our critical resources can be protected, and you can still have some development that wouldn't wreck the environment."
Opponents of drilling, including many local business leaders, are deeply skeptical that the fragile Roan would survive. They paint a vision of a dream landscape turned nightmare: towering gas rigs with their bright lights and thundering diesel engines; endless truck traffic, swimming-pool-size evaporation ponds filled with foul-smelling petroleum residues, thousands of gallons of wastewater and miles of dusty dirt roads in a region that rarely receives rainfall.
"Once the steamroller starts rolling, it doesn't pick and choose," said Duke Cox, a builder and businessman from the nearby town of Silt. "It just rolls over everything."
In areas where the BLM already permits oil and gas wells, resistance is also building. The government has approved tens of thousands of wells for coal-bed methane and natural gas on BLM lands in Wyoming's Pinedale region and in the Powder River Basin, which straddles Wyoming and Montana. New plans would allow thousands of additional wells, to the dismay of many longtime residents who once supported energy companies.
In the town of Pinedale, Wyo., local officials are wary. Ward Wise, who serves as the Pinedale mayor's assistant, said the economic boost from gas production in the past was often short-lived. Even now, in good economic times, the town gets relatively little money from energy royalties -- about $88,000 this year.
"It's a boom-bust cycle," Wise said. "What happens when this thing busts? And someday it will. What's going to happen to the environment, which can never be replaced?"
Freddie Botur, 32, a rancher from nearby Daniel, Wyo., recently surveyed his ranch from his four-door maroon GMC pickup, his border collie, Loki, in the back seat. Already there were more than a dozen drilling sites, most with several 30-foot-high holding tanks, dotting the high-desert sagebrush plain on his ranch.
Eighty percent of Botur's ranch lies on federal land, which he leases for grazing. His family has owned the other 20 percent for 16 years, but they do not own the mineral rights below. Oil and gas companies can drill without Botur's assent. In most cases, he said, he has no input and gets no warning.
"The increase we've seen in the last five to six years is tremendous," Botur said. "I'm not vehemently opposed to oil and gas development, but I'm also in disagreement with the idea that all is good in the name of oil and gas. My concern is not what's happened but what's going to happen."
Botur's ranch is home to 3,000 cattle and also serves as a birthing ground for 200 pronghorn antelope. Botur senses the drilling is taking a toll.
During winter months the region -- known as the Pinedale Anticline -- is a sort of American Serengeti, a massive migratory corridor for tens of thousands of pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep. But it is also home to 600 wells. The district's new land-management plan calls for an additional 3,100.
"It's more driven by economics than anything else," said the BLM's Pinedale field manager Prill Mecham. As for the gas, she added, "Where it is, is where it is. And it is basically right here."
The region's energy riches are undisputed. Thirty miles to the east of Botur's ranch, the Anticline's rich, sprawling Jonah Field has an estimated 10.5 trillion cubic feet of gas within a 30,000-acre area. If fully tapped, it could meet the energy needs of half the country for an entire year.
"We haven't identified any place that has as much natural gas reserves in a confined footprint," said Walt Lowry, director of community and industry relations for EnCana USA, a division of the Canadian oil giant.
Industry officials say they have taken several steps to protect wildlife, including cutting down on flares and not drilling near sage grouse nesting and mating areas.
"We try to minimize our impact as much as possible," Lowry said.
But the combination of winter and drought has taken a toll on the mule deer population. This past winter saw the death of roughly 20 percent of the doe population and 70 percent of the fawns. The narrowing of the second-longest migration corridor in the Western Hemisphere, scientists say, is likely to reduce their numbers further.
Wild Horse Herd Dwindles
In the West Douglas area of Colorado, sandwiched between the Roan Plateau and Utah's Book Cliffs, the fate of the small band of wild horses grows more tenuous daily.
The herd, which a decade ago numbered more than 150, has been documented in the area since at least the early 1970s. Genetic tests trace the animals' lineage back much further, to Spanish horses that came to North America by ship centuries ago. Local historians hold that the horses were present here in the 1600s, when they were encountered by Franciscan priests who were among the first Europeans to survey the region.
Under a 30-year-old congressional act, the government is required to designate a preserve where the horses can live freely. But the West Douglas herd has been viewed largely as pests by ranchers and by at least some of the local BLM officials. Numerous plans have been drafted since the 1970s for reducing or eliminating the herd, mainly because they compete for forage with local cattle.
Some local gas companies also fear that the horses will lead to future limits on drilling. One firm, the El Paso Production Oil & Gas Co., filed a petition in 2001 urging the BLM to make good on its earlier promises to eliminate the herd. The petition said that wild horses had been a "destructive nuisance" on public lands.
In March, the BLM unveiled a plan to remove the horses as soon as possible. The rationale was the poor quality of the herd's habitat, owing to agency's earlier decisions to lease 93 percent of the preserve for oil and gas production. And the plan allowed for drilling on most of the other 7 percent. Steve Hall, a BLM spokesman in Colorado, said the decision was difficult because of the horses' "emotional and symbolic" value but added that the horses would be handled humanely. "It is overly simplistic to say that oil and gas drove the horses off the land," Hall said. "But years of management decisions resulted in so much development that the horses can no longer thrive here."
The BLM plan would preserve the herd area in name only, keeping open the option that wild horses might someday be returned to the region, "after the oil and gas resources are depleted." That makes some horse lovers laugh.
"We've never seen an area where horses were zeroed out and then put back in -- and it isn't going to happen here," said Toni Moore of the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition, which advocates preserving the herd.
She sees the entire wild land going the way of the wild horses.
"Once you've taken that away," she said, "you'll never get it back again."
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.