U.S. Land Use Hits Section's Spotlight

'A Complex Mix of Danger and Opportunity'

Victor Yannacone says he has been preaching his sermon for 40 years:

America's public lands are intended for the full use, benefit and enjoyment of all.

And the best and wisest use includes reasonable development — including energy exploration and production.

Reasonable use must fall between the extremes of what the New York attorney calls a "pernicious conflict."

Some would preserve the lands as scenic playgrounds for the rich and powerful; others would give them away so a few individuals could make money at the expense of others.

A major stumbling block in the way of making the best use of public lands is the fact that policy is created by people far from those lands, Yannacone said.

As an example, Yannacone cited the proliferation of second homes in scenic areas.

"These absentee landowners exercise inordinate and less-than-rational control," he said.

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Victor Yannacone says he has been preaching his sermon for 40 years:

America's public lands are intended for the full use, benefit and enjoyment of all.

And the best and wisest use includes reasonable development — including energy exploration and production.

Reasonable use must fall between the extremes of what the New York attorney calls a "pernicious conflict."

Some would preserve the lands as scenic playgrounds for the rich and powerful; others would give them away so a few individuals could make money at the expense of others.

A major stumbling block in the way of making the best use of public lands is the fact that policy is created by people far from those lands, Yannacone said.

As an example, Yannacone cited the proliferation of second homes in scenic areas.

"These absentee landowners exercise inordinate and less-than-rational control," he said.

Those decisions rightfully should be made by people closer to the lands in question, he said.

"The United States of America was created by people of the states," he said, emphasizing the word "states."

Yannacone, recently named vice chairman of AAPG's Public Outreach Committee by chairman Lee Gerhard, will address the issues of "Development: Conflict and Consensus" at the Rocky Mountain Section's annual meeting, slated Sept. 8-10 in Laramie, Wyo., as part of the meeting's Natural Resources Forum.

"It's time to stop 'inside-the-beltway' policy makers from determining how to use resources they don't understand," he said.

Yannacone's suggestion for taking back control of public lands is not necessarily popular among Westerners — comprehensive land use plans for the states. He said federal lands should be integrated into those plans.

The only state with such a plan is Hawaii, he said.

"It has many flaws, but on balance it has worked," he said.

While he urges states to assert their voices in the national debate, Yannacone said the discussions should not be shaped by strictly political borders.

"It is time for western states to think of themselves as a region in a geopolitical sense … instead of states and counties," he said.

A series of regional compacts among the states would help balance federal control of lands and resources, he said. States could move gradually toward comprehensive land use planing by first addressing regional issues.

"If they do create local, rational, acceptable comprehensive plans that include federal lands, Congress should require that they be followed, or the courts will," he said.

'Rise Up and Speak Out'

The issues are hardly limited to the American West, he said, calling the prohibition of oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic Coast and in Lake Erie "an absolute outrage and example of political myopia."

Geologists should insert themselves into the debate to keep "irrational science from driving even less-rational public policy," Yannacone said.

He said the recent cancellation of leases off Florida "economically irrational."

"Other states (in the region) should rise up and say Florida cannot veto" development, he said.

The Rocky Mountain region presents "a complex mix of danger and opportunity," he said.

Yannacone cited a non-energy-related example of "inappropriate short-term development." He called the spread of wasting disease among ranch-bred elk an illustration of "the right thing in the wrong place in the wrong way."

"It was a predictable, preventable problem … Science was ignored," he said, adding that rational public policy can be shaped by educating people to natural resource issues, beginning at an early age.

Yannacone's message is "a plea to rise up and speak out and assert the truth if you are a scientist."

Geologists must be willing to point out flaws in public policy and insist that long-term policies be grounded in science, he said.

Elementary science programs should be rooted in the earth sciences, he added, with efforts and spending placed "not in new bureaucracies, but in teachers and learning."

He urged geologists to start in their local school districts.

"Give your time to talk and answer questions," he said. "Let these students see what a geologist does. You will shape hundreds of lives."

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