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November 23, 2021

Reimagining Public Lands: Edison’s Director of Business Development talks public access, land management, and stewardship for America’s open spaces

By Elana Knopp, Senior Content Writer

In the next installment of our Edison Plugged In Series, which shines a spotlight on the people, projects, and perspectives of the Edison Energy team, we are featuring the insights of Ben Landry on public lands access and conservation. As Director, Business Development, Ben helps Edison’s advisory practices develop new product offerings and acts as a strategic relationship manager for our existing key clients. Click here to learn more about Ben’s background.


 

With the passage of the nation’s Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976, Congress authorized the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to continue what it had been doing since its inception under the Truman administration in 1946–managing public lands under a specific set of principles. But the FLPMA went much further, granting BLM new authorities and responsibilities, amending, or repealing previous legislation, and prescribing specific management techniques.

The FLPMA succeeded in repealing more than 1,000 out-of-date land management statutes, replacing them with new policies, including a new planning system. It also changed how BLM manages minerals and grazing in public lands and has mandated new forms of preservation and protection for public lands.

The BLM oversees approximately 245 million acres of public lands, or one-tenth of America’s land base, and about 30 percent of the nation’s minerals.

Ben Landry, Director of Business Development at Edison Energy, spent much of his youth engaged with protected public lands in the rural New England town where he spent his early years.

“I grew up using them, knowing about their existence and treating them as a resource in town that was beyond my own immediate backyard,” he said.

When Landry moved to Texas in elementary school, the ability to utilize public lands took on greater significance.

“Growing up, Texas was probably 95 percent private land–there was very little public land, especially compared to the overall acreage in the state with its massive geography,” he said. “All the vacationing we did was to states that offered greater opportunities for visitors to hike and recreate on public use areas. It was a focal point for most of my life. As I got older and developed a passion for hunting, fishing, and biking, that became increasingly more important because those are primarily the lands that we rely on for those activities.”

This passion led to a keen interest in public land stewardship, spurred by both Landry’s personal experiences, as well as his undergraduate studies in college.

“The concept of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ originally stated from William Forster Lloyd and made widely known by Garrett Hardin in the late 1960s, always came up,” he said. “How do you appropriately manage a public resource for equal benefit? I’ve been an advocate for public lands access, which includes doing environmental cleanup projects, building new trails, increasing signage, and GIS mappings, which has been a key focus. I like finding new areas of public land to explore because it’s unique and it’s for everybody.”

The scope of Landry’s work at Edison centers more on private lands, used to site and construct utility-scale renewable energy projects like solar and wind farms, with the project developer purchasing the property or leasing the land from a private landowner.

“That is typically a private land relationship,” Landry said. “There are monetary incentives assigned, there’s an ownership structure, there’s a physical boundary. Our industry is largely dependent on private lands–the growth of renewables is heavily tied to private lands, how they’re used, and what they cost. The trend for developing is ‘the cheaper the better.’ In West Texas, for example, those lands are not producing 450-bushel corn like areas in the Midwest, where sacrificing acreage for renewables development could be financially detrimental to the landowner. Their crop is mostly pastured grasslands for livestock, ranching or cotton production, and those can be more effectively coupled with wind turbine development without obstruction to grazing and direct sunlight.”

Expanding public access

Despite a number of statutes set in place to protect and manage public lands, a host of challenges remain, primarily around safe and equitable access. Many public lands are landlocked by private properties, necessitating permission from private landowners to access them on the ground, or more creative and cost-prohibitive measures like aerial access.

“If you look at a map of the American West–Montana or Wyoming, for example–there are hundreds of thousands of acres of public land,” Landry said. “But unfortunately, the way that those parcels of land have been either donated, granted permission from private landowners, or created initially, there’s no public road access or walking easement to get to those parcels. Private land surrounds them like a checkerboard and access is limited. Is it good that they exist? Absolutely–they create habitat, areas of refuge and shelter for wildlife. But can they be utilized as a public resource? Not unless you have landowner permission or the funds to charter a helicopter pilot.”

Among land conservationists, the issue of how to increase responsible access to those parcels of land looms large. Leasing road easements from landowners or denying tax credits for these landlocked parcels has been discussed as potential ways to expand public access.

“If I owned 10,000 acres in Wyoming and I wanted to benefit from a monetary incentive to donate that land for public use, I could do that and I could put it in a 100- or 200-year lease to the BLM and now that land is designated on the map as public and anyone can access it,” Landry said. “But if I want to dissuade people from actually getting to it, I just landlock it in the middle of my property. So, do we focus our efforts and our tax dollars on parcels that actually have public access and reduce the financial incentives for those parcels that do not have public access so that we’re spending our resources wisely? I think that’s a big question.”

Most BLM public lands are located in a dozen western states including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The Agency manages a wide range of uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, mining, timber harvesting, and outdoor recreation, while conserving natural, historical, and cultural resources including wilderness areas and national monuments, wild horse and wildlife habitat, artifacts, and dinosaur fossils. The BLM also consults with Tribes to ensure that collaborative steps can be taken to promote healthy and productive public lands that create jobs in local communities while supporting traditional land uses.

“The stewardship piece is obviously big,” Landry said. “How do these public lands get used? Are they planted with rotational crops that benefit a specific species over another species? Are they used as a jack-of-all-trades property where you’re putting in CRP, and who manages that? Is it the farmer that donated the land, is it the Forest Service? How do we appropriate the right stewardship for making sure there’s no trespassing, litter, unlawful ATV use, and encampments? There’s a lot of conversations around forestry and conservation happening, and there’s a lot more legislative conversations around access and funding, which is exactly the type of momentum that I am encouraged to see.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a massive public lands bill that aims to permanently protect nearly three million acres across Colorado, California, Washington and Arizona.

The legislation is a collection of eight separate public lands bills the House approved last year, including the Colorado Wilderness Act to protect over 660,000 acres of wilderness in 36 unique areas across Colorado.

It is one of the largest land-protection packages Congress has ever considered, coming just weeks after President Biden signed an executive order requiring his administration to develop a plan to conserve at least 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030 to help combat the ongoing climate crisis.

The legislation reflects growing awareness around the need to protect and conserve public lands.

But there is much that private citizens can do to help conserve and restore public lands. For those interested in getting involved in public land advocacy, Landry recommends the use of geospatial data and services like Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and remote sensing technology. This helps to locate public lands and their specific resources for the benefit of everyone.

“From a planetary side of things like climate change, carbon sequestration and sustainability, public land, public ocean, and public ‘anything’ that is protected and put into a conservation program is extremely beneficial,” Landry said. “It just needs to be managed in an equitable way.”


Click here to explore previous installments in our Edison Plugged In Series and stay tuned for the next feature in the series!
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