General Land Office 200th Anniversary Commemoration Conference
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on public lands management hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder's Center for the American West and the Public Lands Foundation. The purpose of the conference was to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the General Land Office (GLO), which oversaw westward expansion throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The GLO lived on until 1946 when it was merged with the much younger U.S. Grazing Service to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). During this conference I had the opportunity to meet with a multitude of current and former land managers including former directors of the BLM, chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service, and the current Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. I found it very interesting that certain members of the U.S. Department of the Interior, namely Secretary of the Interior Salazar and former BLM Director Bob Abbey jokingly remarked that the Department of the Interior was in addition to it's land management duties the "Real" department of energy. While the comment was tongue-in-cheek on the part of both Secretary Salazar and Director Abbey, it reflects how important America's public lands are for energy production. The BLM for instance manages 256 million acres (about 2 1/2 Californias) of land and around 700 million acres (about 30% of the total area of the United States) of subsurface mineral rights, most of that in Alaska and west of the Great Plains.
Of all the publicly owned lands, BLM land is the most important to energy because of the multiple use mandate established by the Federal Lands Management Policy Act (FLMPA) in 1976. Multiple use means that the BLM has to balance all of the various scientific, historical, ecological, archaeological, and human uses of the land. In Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, multiple use includes uranium mining. Along a stretch of the Colorado-Utah border, a large amount of BLM land sits on top of the Uravan Mineral Belt, a source of uranium rich Carnotite ore. The BLM's Uncompahgre Field Office, which manages part of the Uravan Mineral Belt, records 25 uranium exploration projects either on or adjacent to BLM land. Given how many different projects are going on in this area of the American West alone, it is interesting to note that none of the former public land managers participating in panels at this conference brought up the issue of uranium on public lands. While issues over uranium mining may not be as high profile as oil & gas issues, they are certainly not dead either. Just ask the people who live on Colorado's western slope.