Energy Development and Biodiversity in Utah: Always a Balancing Act

Oct 30, 2012

Discussions on ways to balance energy development and biodiversity are taking place at Utah State University this week during the Restoring the West Conference. Land owners, wildlife officials, energy developers, and state officials are hoping to create plans to continue energy development and reduce impacts to the environment.

Twenty-three million acres of land in Utah are managed by the BLM. The Bureau is responsible for working with the public, environmental groups, and state and local government to develop plans to help balance energy development while protecting wildlife, air quality, and private land rights.

Speaking on UPR's Access Utah program Monday, Jim Gasewood, who represents the BLM as the renewable energy program coordinator, said he will be giving an overview during the conference of best management practices used to mitigate environmental impacts when it comes to large-scale oil and gas and renewable energy development projects on public lands managed by the BLM.

"So the question is how do you balance this need for cheap energy. Because energy also means jobs. Funding for schools are tied to energy development in the case of Utah with some of our state trust lands. Energy's not cheap. If you're going to use energy, you also need to balance that energy use with maybe issues of energy conservation. People have to be aware of the trade-offs, the balances, the things that can happen. Those things are going to cost and those costs have to be incurred by someone. And ultimately that's going to be the consumer."

The governor has set up a task force including stake holders to present recommendations to meet energy development demands and protect habitat, including that of the sage grouse.

Summit County councilman, rancher, and conservationist Chris Robinson lives in a part of the state where sage grouse live. He says if the state doesn't do something to balance protection of the grouse with protection of personal property rights, the federal government will have to step in. 

"This is going to be a game changer in how we deal with sage grouse, whether it's listed or whether there's a state plan. It's going to affect not just conventional fossil fuel development but also renewable energy in a big way. I think its very possible to come up with a state plan that finds that sweet spot balance that respects private property, allows our economy to grow, protects the bird in a natural environment, and protects biodiversity."

Terri Messer is a wildlife specialist for Utah State University. He has been mapping the ecology of the sage grouse for 18 years, trying to determine how the grouse use land. He says they tend to move in and out of private and public lands, including areas that are used for energy development, and that creating a sage grouse conservation plan alone will not be enough to balance the needs of the sage grouse and allow for unlimited energy development.

"So all of the groups here today and all of the discussion is that once we do something on the landscape that we're not done yet. The idea is we need to track that and we need to follow that through time to see exactly how it resulted in protection of the species, protection of biodiversity, but also how it affected the communities that were involved that depend on these resources."

The Restoring the West Conference continues through Wednesday this week in Logan.