Opinion

Share the Gift of Public Lands

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The treasures of our public lands should be a gift for all, not the private bank account to be used by a few. Whether it comes to mining around the Grand Canyon and other national parks, drilling in sensitive wildlife habitat or pushing roads through our last unprotected wild places, taking from our shared heritage has often received more emphasis than saving it.

But this holiday season there's a new spirit in our nation's capital.

With it comes the hope that lawmakers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will manage our natural resources by thinking more about public interests than special interests. The first place to look this time of year is, of course, under the tree.

Or trees. In our national forests in recent years, the oil, gas and timber industries have gotten most of the gifts. One present has been undermining the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a popular policy that protects nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped forestland from logging, road-building and other commercial activity.

President-elect Barack Obama, however, has pledged his support for the roadless rule, which is also backed by many in Congress, governors from both parties, environmentalists, hunters, anglers and outdoor business groups across the country. As a first order of business, the new administration should fulfill its promise and embrace this landmark protection. There's also a couple of gifts to the oil and gas industry that need to be returned. Among the most notable is the recent decision to auction off roughly 310,000 acres for oil and gas development in eastern Utah.

Some of the drilling is slated for areas in the neighborhood of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Arches National Park, whose iconic sandstone bridge is featured on Utah's license plates. After the National Park Service's top state official called the drilling plans "shocking and disturbing," the administration wisely deferred the sale of some of the parcels until next year, though environmentalists remain concerned about how such activities could impact air and water quality. Undoing these actions could prove complicated, but the new administration should do whatever is necessary to ensure that any drilling will not compromise our national parks and other special places. Congress also has some items it needs to wrap up. Despite broad backing from both sides of the aisle, it fell short on legislation that would have preserved roughly two million acres of wilderness in eight states.

Among the wildlands slated to be permanently protected are postcard landscapes in California's eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains, Idaho's Canyonlands, West Virginia Monongahela National Forest and along Michigan's Lake Superior shoreline. Lawmakers need to tie up this package when they return in January and see it's delivered promptly.

Also on the wish list is reform of the nation's 1872 mining law, which for a handful of multinational corporations has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. Signed by Ulysses S. Grant to lure pioneers westward, it lets mining companies pay basically nothing for the $1 billion worth of gold and other metals that the Congressional Budget Office estimates is taken off public lands each year. Because environmental standards are few and far between, clean-up falls largely to taxpayers and the toxic waste constitutes a huge burden.

Even our most special places may not be totally exempt from harm. This includes the Grand Canyon, where a British company last year began uranium exploration within a stone's throw of the north rim.

With watersheds, wildlife and western communities at stake, Congress needs to end the free ride by passing meaningful reform legislation. With the holidays in full swing and the inauguration around the corner, Washington is basking in the spirit of bipartisanship and hope. To prolong the cooperative spirit and chart a new course for protecting our public lands, lawmakers will need to seek the good will and collaboration of their colleagues, while saving lumps of coal for the special interests that often seek to exploit such places purely for private gain. Conserving our country's natural heritage will require a change from business as usual in the nation's capital, but that's one gift that Americans keep clamoring for.

This op-ed appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat and was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.