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'Can we have it all?' Budd says environment vs. energy balance worth the effort

Jun 19, 2013 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Keeping the focus on the long-term outcomes of environmentally balanced economic development while allowing production in the short term is all in a day's work for Bob Budd, the executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

The nine-member board that comprises the trust is appointed by Gov. Matt Mead and faces formidable challenges in walking the fine line of environmental responsibility and economic development.

"There are a number of environmental issues across the state," Budd said, "things people don't pick up on because they don't see it every day. Mega fauna like wolves, bears, deer and elk get the headlines, but there are a lot of other important issues."

Fish are one area of concern. Native species can become stressed as subdivisions, industry and growth affect traditional spawning areas. The Bonneville cutthroat trout and warm water species in the Clear Creek Watershed, such as channel cats, sturgeon and golden eye, all have been negatively affected.

"My board has spent a considerable amount of money and effort to ensure those fish can get to their historic spawning grounds," Budd said.

Sage grouse are a target species receiving a lot of attention as their traditional sagebrush habitat is often affected by mining and oil and gas production.

"Other grassland birds are affected as well," Budd said. "The sage grouse is a talisman for 72 other species"

It isn't always man-made changes that adversely affect the environment; sometimes other flora and fauna can have an even greater deleterious effect on a biome than human encroachment.

Salt cedar, Russian olive, cheatgrass and encroaching conifers all have had negative impacts in areas around the state.

"My board is dealing with all those issues on a landscape scale," Budd said. "Industry must be cognizant of these indicators."

Budd was quick to credit the efforts that the energy industry has made in lessoning environmental impact and its outstanding efforts at reclaiming mining areas.

"Give industry a lot of credit," Budd said. "Look at the work the bentonite industry has done with sage grouse in the Big Horn Basin. It is tremendous."

The tendency to believe that environmental issues will sort themselves out without active mitigation is no longer the accepted norm.

"Bentonite and oil and gas have a core area strategy on sage grouse. Trona and coal have dedicated time, resources and funds to solve this problem," Budd said. "Maybe we don't get sage grouse listed, but something else is. We have to think about how these big systems function and how we keep them functional. Migration routes that are important to many species can't have a subdivision put in the middle of them."

For instance, the environmental effect of the Jonah Field in Sublette County is widely studied, but the growing subdivision between Pinedale and Boulder is larger than the Jonah Field and could have a greater negative impact on native species.

"Most of the things we're trying to deal with will have stresses from a variety of sources," Budd said. "It's a complex picture. People like simplicity. They like to see the problem and say 'We fixed it, and we're done.'"

The issues Budd and his board deal with in the 98,000 square miles that comprise the Cowboy State can be daunting in both their complexity and variety.

Something as seemingly benign as fire prevention can have adverse affects on the environment as a whole.

"Conifers that don't have fire encroach on Aspen groves, and on the bottom you have creeping civilization moving up the mountain," Budd said. "Mule deer and elk can live anywhere, white tails come up from the bottom -- they don't mind people because they're nocturnal -- all of a sudden we have all these issues, and we can't fix the problem."

While the energy industry gets a large share of the publicity when it comes to environmental issues, the reality is that it is also just one piece of the whole.

"It's not strictly an industry issue, but they're part of it," Budd said. "Human habitation, highways, industry and four-wheelers, the cumulative impact of all this can be amazing. This state has been good about trying to figure out how to mitigate this. We have to have an economy, we can't just shut it down. You have to pick where you can have the most positive effect."

New questions, issues and circumstances arise constantly. Working with sound ecological information is one key to success. Keeping systems intact is a major challenge and the specific needs of species that require a unique habitat adds even more depth to the issue.

"We're in a good place in Wyoming, because for the most part, we're trying to address these issues," Budd said. "But industry gets tired of being beaten up."

More communities are thinking in terms of watersheds and maintaining their own back yards. Wyoming's energy sector is just one component of the overall economy of the state that has historically been deeply rooted in agriculture and tourism.

"It is critical to maintain our agricultural base. It's been eroded away by subdivision and other things. Without that base, where does the rest of our economy fall?" Budd asked. "Our economy is our natural resources, wildlife, agriculture, all of those things."

The practice of "dig and run" is an antiquated one that no longer plays well in Wyoming.

"The 'maximum return' notion probably doesn't work because we lose on other ends," Budd said. "We need to strive to obtain balance. A lot of these uses are temporary."

Budd sees comparable patterns far across the Atlantic Ocean in South Africa. The South Africans have a similar economy to Wyoming's with abundant wildlife, large ranches, mineral production and a vibrant tourism industry.

"In South Africa farmers are dedicated to wildlife and their stock. They see a future that has tourism and minerals as their biggest industries," Budd said.

Wyoming is in a good place when it comes to the balance between industry and ecology. "We've already done the 'stop the bleeding' part," Budd said. "The bentonite industry really jumped up. Oil and gas did tremendous work. I'm optimistic about that. Can we have it all? Maybe, or maybe not all everywhere."

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