Russell Kuhlman (Photo: Provided by Russell Kuhlman)

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This opinion column was submitted by Russell Kuhlman, the executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation.

Public lands have always played a central role in my life. I grew up hunting turkey, deer, elk, antelope and waterfowl all across America’s public lands. My passion for hunting is not only because I get to fill my freezer with organic meat but the time I get to spend with my friends and family quietly taking in the wonders of the wildlife landscapes around us. Hunting provides me with a chance to reset and focus on what matters most. As I return from my latest hunting trip in New Mexico, I have been reflecting on both the beauty of the wildlife that surrounded me, as well as the myriad of outdoor enthusiasts who join me in appreciating all that our public lands have to offer. 

In a typical year, Nevada’s public lands will draw in over $12.6 billion from outdoor recreation activities such as climbing, biking, hiking, hunting and fishing, and these lands support more than 87,000 direct jobs for Nevadans. Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, public lands are providing a much-needed escape and place of serenity — drawing in more visitors and helping our economy to stay afloat.

Unfortunately, the future of our public lands is being put in jeopardy by our nation’s outdated oil and gas leasing system. Right now, the Bureau of Land Management and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt are exploiting our broken system to allow oil and gas companies to lease our public lands — including many parcels that have little to no potential for development — for pennies on the dollar. Allowing oil and gas CEOs to hoard land with low or no actual potential for development wastes taxpayer resources, ties up our land from being used for other revenue generating activities and harms critical wildlife habitat in the process. 

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Furthermore, through a process known as noncompetitive leasing, millions of acres of public land across the West are being leased for just $2 per acre. This may be nothing to oil and gas companies, but it is a great loss for outdoor enthusiasts everywhere. Under the current administration, 2.3 million acres of public lands in Nevada — an area slightly larger than Yellowstone National Park — have been made available for noncompetitive leasing. And in the last decade alone, 70 percent of all acres leased in Nevada were offered noncompetitively, for as low as just $1.50 per acre. To make matters even worse, many of these lease sales were in critical mule deer migration corridors and sage grouse habitat. 

BLM has a mandate to “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Yet the current administration’s energy dominance agenda ignores this requirement in order to fulfill the wishes of oil and gas companies, steamrolling Americans and our wildlife in the process. This approach harms states like Nevada that depend on public lands for hunting, fishing, tourism, outdoor recreation and clean energy development. Thankfully, there is momentum to bring the leasing system into the 21st century.

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Earlier this year, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto introduced legislation to reform the federal onshore oil and gas leasing program, end the leasing of public lands with low or no drilling potential, and enhance the management of other uses of public land. And most recently, Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) introduced two pieces of legislation to restore local governments’ and taxpayers’ important role in public land management decisions, while ensuring they are not left on the hook for future cleanup and remediation costs.

I, along with other policy experts and community leaders, met with Congress this month to discuss the mismanagement of our public lands and problems caused by an outdated leasing system, and provided several bills — including those mentioned above, and beyond — that take critical steps towards addressing these problems. 

Congress has options on the table; now they must move swiftly to enact legislation to overhaul the broken leasing system. I want to be able to pass my love of hunting and outdoor recreation down to my kids and grandkids. Once leased and used for oil and gas developments, these wildlife habitats may be irreparably damaged. It is our duty to act now to preserve these treasured spaces for generations to come.

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