WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is urging President Barack Obama to step up efforts to conserve public lands as he begins his second term.
Babbitt, who led Interior for eight years under President Bill Clinton, said Obama should adopt what Babbitt called a common-sense principle: For every acre of public land leased to the oil and gas industry, one acre should be permanently protected for future generations.
Over the past four years, more than 6 million acres have been leased for oil and gas, compared with 2.6 million acres permanently protected, according to U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a ratio of about 2.4-to-1. Under President George W. Bush, the differential was even greater, with 7.5 acres leased for oil and gas for every acre of land conserved.
"This lopsided public land administration in favor of the oil and gas industry cannot continue," Babbitt said in a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club.
With increased development comes greater use of roads that "carve up and fragment the landscape," along with more pollution of streams and lakes and loss of backcountry that serves as prime hunting areas and habitat for wildlife, Babbitt said.
"Entire landscapes and ecosystems are despoiled. Open space is ever harder to find and enjoy" he said.
Adoption of the one-to-one principle would ensure that conservation is on equal standing with energy development, Babbitt said, and would ensure that outdoor recreation, tourism, hunting and fishing are on equal ground with the interests of oil and gas companies.
Babbitt, a Democrat, said Obama cannot count on cooperation from Congress — especially the Republican-controlled House, which he said is "more interested in throwing itself off metaphorical cliffs than protecting any real ones."
The two-year Congress that just ended was the first since the 1960s not to protect a single acre of wilderness, a fact Babbitt called shameful.
To achieve his conservation goals, Obama must use his executive authority under laws such as the Antiquities Act, Babbitt said, noting that presidents from Theodore Roosevelt on have used the law to protect nationally important lands.
While he did not call for specific acreage amounts that should be set aside, Babbitt said Obama and his cabinet should set annual land conservation goals. If the goals are not met, the administration should suspend quarterly sales of oil and gas leases until the conservation goals are reached, Babbitt said, calling such a threat a strong incentive for Congress to act.
Conservation groups hailed Babbitt's remarks and said they hoped Obama would consider them as he ponders his environmental legacy.
Lands entrusted to the public provide more than just revenue, said Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition of sportsmen's groups. Public lands "are a big part of our history, our heritage and identity," the group said.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, blasted Babbitt's remarks, saying his proposal was based on a false premise. About 37 million acres of BLM land have been leased for oil and gas development over the years, compared with 293 million acres that have been set aside for conservation, Bishop said.
"This disparity clearly favors conservation but also reinforces the fact that deserving places are already being protected," he said in a statement. "Instead of villainizing American energy developers, Secretary Babbitt should accept the fact that energy development, multiple use and conservation are not mutually exclusive activities."
Babbitt said after his speech that he is optimistic Obama will take his advice, adding that he was heartened by Obama's reference to the threat posed by climate change in his inaugural address.
"I think he's awakened to these issues," Babbitt said. "We're going to see more protection."
Babbitt said he had no inside information on Obama's likely choice to replace outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, but said he was satisfied with all of the names he has heard so far.
Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC