The federal government can restrict access to public lands for oil and gas drilling purposes through a number of means. Recently, President Obama’s proposal to designate millions of acres of land in Alaska as wilderness made the national press, as did his recent designation of forestlands in California as a national monument and his outright removal of areas off the coast of Alaska from planned lease sales. While these actions are important and deserve close scrutiny, it is both interesting and alarming that critical habitat designations under the Endangered Species Act rarely command the headlines like wilderness and monument designations.
Consider this for perspective: the January 2015 proposed designation of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lands as wilderness would cover 12.28 million acres—a huge designation by all accounts. In the graph below, that “huge” designation is represented by the barely noticeable circle on the left. The next two circles represent the two largest areas of critical habitat that the federal government designated in 2014. The final circle is the critical habitat that the National Marine Fisheries Service recently proposed for ringed seals. It is nearly 20 times the size of the proposed wilderness designation, and almost 10% of the area of the contiguous United States (about the size of Texas and Kansas combined, or nearly 50 New Jerseys for those from the East Coast).
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Federal land access issues are not limited to high-profile Presidential pronouncements in the final years of an administration. The federal government is designating critical habitat at a rate never before seen in the history of the ESA, and with few exceptions, those designations largely escape broad public scrutiny.