DENVER — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Thursday that president-elect Donald Trump’s transition team hasn’t contacted her department and she doesn’t know what his policy will be on managing public lands — a contentious issue in the West that has boiled over into armed confrontation in Nevada and Oregon.
Jewell was in Denver to announce that the federal government had canceled 25 leases for oil and gas drilling on pristine federal land in western Colorado, saying recreation was a better use for the land. No drilling had begun on the sites.
Jewell said she expects the decision to stand once Trump takes office because it came after years of consultation with industry and other parties.
She said she couldn’t predict what Trump’s public land policy will be because she has not heard from his transition team in the nine days since the election.
“I can’t pre-judge what kind of approach they may take or the people they put in place may take,” she said.
Trump has promised to increase oil and gas drilling on federal land, open up offshore drilling and undo some environmental and energy polices of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Access to vast federal lands in the West for oil and gas development, mining, ranching and other uses is an inflammatory issue. Some complain that restricting commercial uses for environmental reasons hurts the economy and infringes on Westerners’ rights. Others say overdevelopment causes unnecessary damage to the environment and effectively privatizes land that should be open to all Americans.
In 2014, heavily armed supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy confronted federal officials who were trying to round up Bundy’s cattle on federal land after Bundy racked up more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. The government backed down but arrested Bundy last February on charges including threatening federal officers.
This year, an armed group held the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for 41 days, and one of the group, LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed by state police. Two of Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, were acquitted of criminal charges in that standoff but face trial along with their father in the Nevada siege.
Most disputes play out in the courts or Congress, however, and some are resolved with negotiations. Two years ago, an oil company agreed to a settlement with environmentalists and the federal government to preserve parts of Colorado’s scenic Roan Plateau.
Jewell said that deal was finalized Thursday.
Jewell and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the Obama administration has encouraged a similar collaborative approach to other land use decisions, soliciting help from industry, environmentalists and local residents.
“I think this is exactly what the president-elect has championed as he’s gone throughout his campaign, is letting local communities try to hear both sides and have a balanced (decision),” said Hickenlooper, who joined Jewell for the announcement about drilling in Colorado.
Jewell also noted that the Interior Department has changed the way it evaluates proposals for oil and gas leases, conducting long-range planning and adopting what she called a landscape-scale approach to review the combined impact of multiple projects instead of looking at them one-by-one.
The decision Jewell announced Thursday revokes 25 leases for drilling oil and gas on the Thompson Divide area. Opponents of the leases argued the government hadn’t done an adequate environmental review before approving them.
Kathleen Sgamma, a spokeswoman for the industry group Western Energy Alliance, said the leases were canceled on a technicality. She likened it to a homeowner being evicted years after buying a house because a document wasn’t signed.
She also said industry was left out of discussions that led to the cancellations.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Congress would try to reinstate the leases. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whose district includes the Thompson Divide, criticized the cancellations.
“It will be imperative that we keep all energy resources as a viable option to fuel our economy in the years to come,” he said in a written statement.
Tipton spokeswoman Liz Payne said there’s been no discussion about whether Congress will try to restore the leases.