Interior Department officials announced this week they will delay some new oil and gas projects on public lands until they can evaluate drilling's effects on wildlife.
Some hunters' and anglers' groups hailed the initiative, though several environmentalists said that it meant little in light of the administration's push for energy development on federal property.
Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson told a coalition of conservation groups Saturday that the department had told Bureau of Land Management state and regional officers they have the right to defer leasing if they were in the midst of drafting new resource management plans, which set long-term federal land-use policies. The instruction memorandum, which BLM issued Friday, applies to all 262 million acres it manages.
"We're saying: Think smart up front, and defer leasing on these lands until you come up with new plans," Watson said in an interview yesterday. She added that she expects the policy shift will result in "a reduction in the number of leases being issued" in the coming months.
Watson said BLM and the Forest Service will also jointly hire a state game and fish biologist in Wyoming to work with federal officials on energy plans and will develop a wildlife monitoring project in Pinedale, Wyo., a major migration corridor that has experienced a drilling boom in recent years.
The administration is rewriting 162 management plans, which dictate federal policy on issues from grazing to drilling. Twenty-two of the plans, applying to such states as Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, are time-sensitive and will be completed by 2006, Watson said.
In issuing the announcement Monday, Interior included comments from Boone and Crockett Club President Robert Model, a conservation leader who has worked with the White House.
"The bottom line is this: This administration, unlike the previous administration, has responded to the concerns of the hunter, sportsman and conservation community in the past three and a half years," Model said in the Interior statement. "Here in Wyoming, positive steps are being made toward the development of energy, but it's being done the right way because this administration is sensitive to the needs and concerns of conservationists."
Western environmentalists, however, described the BLM's policy directive as cosmetic. Upper Green River Valley Coalition grass-roots coordinator Linda Baker, whose group monitors the drilling in Pinedale, noted that 75 percent of the available federal land in the area is already leased. "That still isn't balanced management," she said.
And Peter Aengst, an energy policy analyst for the Wilderness Society based in Bozeman, Mont., said Watson's announcement "basically doesn't do anything" for Pinedale because leasing has grown so rapidly there. He also said the delays would not kick in until BLM managers had drafted a resource management plan, which could take years.
"That's pretty late in the process," Aengst said.
Both Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry have courted the hunting and fishing community, saying they support sporting activities in unspoiled areas. Bush has invited members of the "hook and bullet" crowd to both his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and to the White House, while Kerry has gone hunting on the campaign trail.
Watson said the administration remains sympathetic to the need for energy development, and oil and gas officials said yesterday they understand Interior's decision.
"We're obviously in a situation where we're faced with these decision conflicts that have to be made," said Lee Fuller, vice president for government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America. He said that the move is understandable, but he hopes it will not slow down the final release of land-use plans across the country.
"We would like to get there as fast as we can get there," he said.