William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, speaks on the future of America's public lands. (Lauren Schwartzberg / Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON—The Wilderness Society brought its case for protecting public lands to the National Press Club on Tuesday. At stake: where to allow oil-and-gas drilling and mining, and how to offer guidance to the government on renewable energy efforts.

The society, the leading American conservation organization working to protect public lands, gathered experts from across the country to discuss significant upcoming environmental issues as well as clarify misconceptions about the management and protection of America’s public lands.

“I would say there’s a lot of confusion with a lot of different initiatives that are going on now. One of the things we try to do is help the federal government be more clear with regulations,” said William H. Meadows, president of TWS.

Taking into account the Interior Department’s new policies on land management and guidance, a new effort to increase clean energy development on public lands and a newly elected Congress, TWS’ main goal is to allow the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to preserve and control public lands by taking additional power back from industries.

“We have new improvements in oil and gas policy. This guidance puts BLM back in control if, when, where and how we drill on our public lands. The oil and gas on our public lands will not be at the whim of the industry,” said Nada Culver, the society’s director of BLM action in Denver.

Currently, less than nine acres of BLM lands are considered wilderness. TWS is working on policies to create a greater balance.

A 2010 U.S. geological survey found that the Western Arctic only contains 10 percent of oil originally thought to be there. TWS agrees with President Barack Obama’s oil spill commission and encourages BLM to create a better plan for the arctic. With 22 million acres, the lands in the Western Arctic make up the biggest portion of the bureau’s public lands.

“The importance of the coastal plane will only increase…now more than ever it is vital to protect this vital area…surely our nation can afford to protect this vital and important part of our heritage,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, director of TWS Alaska regional office.

Finding appropriate solutions for creating renewable energy is also on the forefront of TWS initiatives.

“We are hugely committed to the development of renewable energy for our country. We believe it is the future,” said Meadows.

Yet Meadows explained that it is important to study and understand the land both “ecologically and economically” before creating a wind farm or solar energy zone.

“As an organization we are really looking for solutions. We are working with congress, the administration and local communities,” said Meadows.

Key recommendations

The society identified several ideal locations to create solar projects because they have the characteristics of preferred areas for development of solar power. These zones steer clear of places with a high density of cultural sites and sensitive lands, while maintaining access to existing roads and transmission lines and high quality solar resources—making them perfect sites to collect solar power.

Five of the 24 proposed ideal solar energy zones:

  1. Arizona: 100 miles west of Phoenix
  2. Colorado: near the New Mexico Boarder
  3. Nevada: about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno
  4. New Mexico: 2.5 miles southwest of Las Cruces
  5. Utah: 12 miles south of Milford and 28 miles north of Cedar City

The society’s seven steps to protect public lands from potentially dangerous natural gas development:

  1. Excuse unprotected wild landscapes and sensitive cultural sites from natural gas leasing and development.
  2. Protect critical wildlife habitats from unfavorable impacts of oil and gas activities.
  3. Close loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water Acts, and demand public disclosure of chemical compounds used in drilling.
  4. Fully protect air quality from ozone-forming emissions, fugitive methane emissions, and all other air pollutants that come along with natural gas development.
  5. Honor the rights of surface owners to protect their lands and waters in split-estate situations.
  6. Create sufficient agency staffing and resources for field monitoring and inspection as drilling plans are implemented.
  7. Implement development on federal lands through staged leasing and drilling to minimize socioeconomic and environmental impacts.