With Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, vague on details concerning his plans for reducing the federal deficit and shrinking government, speculation is running heavy, and it's not encouraging for the National Park System.
Though Mr. Romney's website doesn't go into specifics, it does say that when it comes to domestic energy exploration, he supports developing the country's "cornucopia of carbon-based energy resources."
And that's a concern to more than a few folks.
The Center for American Progress last week speculated that a Romney administration would place at least five national parks in danger -- Theodore Roosevelt, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, and Arches -- with its domestic energy plans. Gas and oil development is on the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt, uranimum interests want more access to the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon is threatened by a coal strip mine, Grand Teton is bordered by a national forest with significant natural gas resources, and Arches also is surrounded by potential energy resources, the Center noted.
A Romney presidency would no doubt be welcomed by some Western governors and lawmakers who resent federal ownership of large parts of their states and believe the lands should be relinquished to the states.
In Utah, to cite perhaps the most strident example, Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature are demanding that the federal government give to the state by the end of 2014 some 30 million acres of public lands for the state to manage or sell as it saw fit. A similar movement is under way in Arizona, where a November ballot initiative calls for the state to gain "sovereignty over federal public lands in Arizona, including Grand Canyon National Park."
The platform the GOP adopted at last week's national convention calls for much the same, stating that "Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership."
At The Wilderness Society, Nada Culver earlier this year voiced her organization's concerns over efforts to rekindle a Sagebrush Rebellion in the West.
"It's hard to believe it could happen," Ms. Culver said of the states' efforts to gain control of federal lands.
While supporters of these efforts have in some areas created a perception that "this is some kind of groundswell of local opinon," she went on, "it's certainly our experience that that's not a groundswell of local opinion and that there's plenty of opinion around all of these states of people who value these lands for what they are and what they represent."
Driving the movements, offered Ms. Culver, is "a small group of people, some of whom are in it because they see a value. There are people who see the short-term benefit to themselves, if you're an oil and gas company that would like to do some tar sands leasing in the Grand Staircase-Escalante (National Monument), which seems to have a host of these draws, I think you see the short-term benefit and you miss the long-term benefit to the community and to the West."
At the same time, the Obama administration has tried to work with Western states to both preserve areas worth preserving while also allowing multiple-use of the federal landscape, she said.
"This administration has bent over backwards to try to look at what local communities want on the federal lands," said Ms. Culver. "They were calling it the Crown Jewels initiative where (Interior Secretary Ken) Salazar reached out to every state in the West, every county commissioner, all the (congressional) delegations, the tribes, asking for input on places that they would like the federal government to protect as wilderness or other legislative areas, and everybody but Utah I think put in a few areas. That was this administration trying to avoid that stigma and trying to say 'we can continue to do this collaboratively' and really trying to overcome that problem. So I think that's not a legitimate fear right now, that any administration is going to come in and try to overrule everybody locally. I think that lesson's been learned."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, David Nimkin said the Utah legislation, although it would allow the federal government to retain control of national parks in the state, could in theory allow energy development right up to the parks' boundaries.
"We look at national parks increasingly as parts of larger landscapes, and even the idea of buffers is even insufficient to contemplate how the parklands fit into larger eco-regions," said Mr. Nimkin, the advocacy group's Southwest regional director. "So the idea that you would have really dramatically alternative uses on public lands immediately adjacent to the national parks is really quite terrifying."
Such possibilities could be in direct conflict with the National Park Service's stated desire to "(P)romote large landscape conservation to support healthy ecosystems and cultural resources."
"If they (the state) could have a freer hand on where you drill, where you mine, where you graze, enabling more off-road use, etc., without having to go through the dreaded NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process or any of that stuff, I think they would feel that they could develop a much higher level of ongoing revenue, not just a one-time benefit from a land sale."
Beyond land use, there are increasing concerns that budget decisions by a Romney administration would hamstring the Park Service, among other federal agencies and programs.
At Bloomberg News, writer Richard Rubin said the Republican's promise to balance the budget would lead to national parks, federal housing programs, and other entitlement programs and federal services being forced to absorb a 25 percent funding cut.
"By putting Social Security off limits to cuts, promising to boost defense spending by as much as much as $150 billion a year, and holding the line on taxes, all other spending would have to take a hit of about 29 percent by 2016, by one estimate. If that were spread across-the-board, it would translate to 8,000 fewer employees to staff and maintain the national parks..." wrote Mr. Rubin.
Until the Romney team makes its intentions better known, concerns over how public lands are managed and funded can't be minimized.