ELK CONTROVERSY CLOUDS LARGER ISSUE OF LAND ACCESS

It happens in Washington, DC. Clumsy handling of a minor point in otherwise valuable commentary gets all the attention.

It happens in Washington, DC. Clumsy handling of a minor point in otherwise valuable commentary gets all the attention.

Neal A. Stanley, senior vice-president of Forest Oil Corp., provoked hunters in Congress and elsewhere with a few sentences during testimony before the House Committee on Resources Mar. 7.

Representing Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States and Independent Petroleum Association of America, Stanley described the many problems of leasing federal land in the US West and operating once leases are in hand.

He spoke from experience and provided examples of regulatory heavy-handedness. In the minds of some committee members, however, it all went for naught because of an argument he built around experience from the Big Game Winter Range of Southwest Wyoming.

To promote growth of deer and elk herds, he said, federal land managers prohibit oil and gas drilling during winter. It is his experience that "these animals are not the least bit bothered by our activity."

The practice nevertheless prohibits the drilling of "hundreds" of natural gas wells-the kinds of wells that a gas-short country needs.

Those are valid points. Congress should pay them heed. But Stanley stretched the analysis until it snapped.

Land managers restrict drilling to promote herd size, he said, only so that the animals can be hunted the following autumn. The "trade-off," he said, is between energy development and hunting.

"And so we must decide, should American consumers be paying a higher price for energy to subsidize elk hunters?"

At this, hunters went ballistic.

Seven lawmakers who belong to something called the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus wrote a letter of complaint to Stanley and IPAA chief Barry Russell.

"Of all the hindrances to development," they wrote, "it is disappointing that Mr. Stanley chose to single out the nation's 65 million sportsmen."

In the May 1 edition of the Denver Post, Outdoor Editor Charlie Meyers extrapolated from Stanley's comment to this: "One suspects the oil and gas people of scare tactics by using the current energy concerns to overturn restrictions protecting the environment."

So it goes in the political realm.

Except for the indiscretion that attracted all the attention, Stanley gave good and useful testimony.

He provided data showing how much longer leasing and permitting take on federal land than on private acreage. He offered examples of whimsical decision-making by land managers. He told how much it cost his company.

But all that disappears in the shadow of the elk uproar.

Too bad. Americans need to hear the experiences Stanley relayed.

They need to hear, for example, about the $120,000 his company had to spend paving a two-track dirt road to a drilling location only to have to restore it to its original condition when the well proved dry. The original dirt road would have served the needs of the drilling operation.

Rocky Mountain operators have hundreds of stories like that. For years, securing a lease, which can be difficult enough, has been only part the battle on federal land in the US West, where "leasable" and "accessible" do not mean the same thing.

As a consequence, US energy consumers don't have as much natural gas from the Rocky Mountains as they would have otherwise.

Congress has now scolded Stanley for his clumsy articulation.

So when will it fix clumsy land management, which in the throes of energy shortage is surely the greater offense?

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