Flying Under the Radar: Why We Need to Protect Public Lands

By:  Pete Scales

Flying in a single-engine small plane just a few hundred feet above the Arkansas River Canyon, I was struck by the diversity of terrain and the stunning natural beauty of the public lands just southeast of Salida. From that vantage point, you see the sturdy plateau of Table Mountain, the ripples of red rock that form a gateway to the lush riparian area of Badger Creek, and the fertile wildlands above Texas Creek. 

But I was also stunned to learn that these incredible wild places are in real jeopardy of being exploited and developed for oil, gas, and mineral extraction by the very federal agency who manages them.

Pete Scales with his dog, Ruby, with a beautiful mountain vista. I’m the owner of Ravenswood Outdoors, a small outdoor gear sales and marketing firm that has been headquartered in Salida since 2017. Our business depends on protected public lands — as do our communities, wildlife, and recreation economy. While I thought I had visited most of the public lands in the Arkansas River Valley, I was new to the expansive public lands just on the other side of our iconic “S Mountain,” the focal point of Salida’s historic downtown.

As a member of the Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance (COBA), I was invited on an informational flight around this landscape through the hard-working public land advocacy groups Wild Connections and EcoFlight

Our local Royal Gorge Field Office for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been working on a long-term Resource Management Plan to protect these critical areas. In 2017, they submitted a plan to the national BLM office to identify and secure 278,000 acres of land worthy of special environmental protection in the Arkansas River Canyon Region. 

But the national BLM, now run by William Perry Pendley — a Trump appointee who has spent the last 45 years of his legal career fighting for the private exploitation of public lands — responded to the locally developed draft plan with a “preferred alternative” that deems only 48,000 acres worthy of that distinction.  

That opens up precious wildlands like Badger Creek, Echo Canyon, Bear Mountain, Eightmile Mountain, Red Canyon, Cooper Mountain and Cucharas Canyon to oil, gas, and mineral extraction. We treasure these places for their cultural value, recreation opportunities, and habitat they grant to vibrant wildlife. 

Aerial view of hills and mountains near Salida.

Since Pendley has been rightfully taking heat for his long-held positions on liquidating public lands into private (mostly industrial) hands, he has attempted to change the narrative. Just two weeks ago in an op-ed printed in the Denver Post, he said that “the Trump administration is crystal clear in its opposition to any wholesale disposal or transfer of federal lands.” That position may be necessary because any other policy would be politically radioactive and universally unpopular.

Five people stand in front of a small plane, gearing up for an EcoFlight.But, you don’t have to burn down a whole forest to destroy an ecosystem. A thousand small acts of reckless use can have the same effect. It is unacceptable that the new BLM leadership is attempting to fly under the radar in our backyard and throughout the American West to eliminate environmental protections and open these public lands to private industrial development. 

The new BLM leadership has set a 90-day public comment period for their “preferred alternative” to the BLM Eastern Colorado Draft Resource Management Plan, which ends on September 20th.

You can make your voice heard by submitting a comment to the Bureau of Land Management telling them to protect our wild places from private industrial development. 

It’s time for action — we need to fight to protect our wild public lands. I encourage all members of Conservation Colorado and COBA to tell the national BLM office what these precious areas mean to us, now and for generations to come.