The Interior Department next month will accept applications for oil and gas leases on 1 million acres of national wildlife refuges for the first time since the Eisenhower administration, under regulations scheduled to take effect on Aug. 22.
The department issued the regulations on Friday, using the same language as past administrations, but a different interpretation.
Citing a 1981 opinion by its Board of Land Appeals, Interior says that a 25-year-old ban on leasing in refuges exempts lands the government purchased from private owners and those set aside to protect certain species rather than all wildlife.
About 1 million acres on 46 wildlife refuges in 24 states would be affected, according to officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the 12.8 million-acre refuge system. Leases will not be issued on these lands, officials said, unless the service concludes that mineral development is "compatible" with the refuges' purpose, which is to protect wildlife.
Environmentalists complained that the new interpretation is part of a "piecemeal opening of the refuge system," as Jim Norton of the Wilderness Society put it.
An earlier draft of the regulation proposed an outright ban on mineral development in refuges. The regulation published Friday deleted this, saying Interior will review its overall leasing policy before making a "substantive change."