Accusing the Bureau of Land Management of bowing to corporate oil and gas interests in its proposed resource plan for the Lewistown region, the Montana Wilderness Association announced on Thursday its plans to fight back.
The conservation group is launching a $25,000 advertising campaign calling on the federal agency to respect multiple use. In addition, MWA has been lobbying the state’s congressional delegation to take action. If those measures fail, the group could file a lawsuit once a final management plan is released this summer.
The MWA and other conservationists are contending that the BLM ignored widespread public input by Montanans seeking to protect large tracts of critical prairie habitat across the 650,000 management area in Central Montana.
“In 2016, the Lewistown Field Office identified 200,000 acres as having wilderness characteristics,” MWA said in a press release. “That same year, it completed an (Resource Management Plan) that would have protected 100,000 of those acres.”
Instead, the agency substituted a top-down proposal from the Trump administration that values oil and gas development over recreation and wildlife values, Montana conservationists said in a Thursday teleconference.
“The public is slowly but surely being cut out of our public lands,” said Tracy Stone Manning, associate vice-president of public lands at the National Wildlife Federation.
“It’s probably worth noting that public lands are now more valuable than ever, given the stresses facing our country,” she said, pointing to the value of recreation on public lands as a way to find solace and reduce stress during the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s our obligation to keep them intact for the future,” Stone Manning added.
Unveiled in February, the Resource Management Plan for the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office will guide management for the next 20 years. The planning area stretches from the Rocky Mountain Front east to the Musselshell River and includes valued lands for recreation in the Judith Mountains and Missouri River Breaks.
It took six years to craft the document, which drew more than 800 comments. When the Trump administration stepped into office, however, the conservation groups said the goals of Montana conservationists to protect and preserve 100,000 acres of wildlands was subverted in favor of oil and gas leasing.
“It really dismisses public input,” said Aubrey Bertram, MWA’s Eastern Montana field director.
In place of more restrictive protections for public lands, the BLM touted a new classification — Backcountry Conservation Areas. BCAs “promote public access to support wildlife-dependent recreation and hunting opportunities and facilitate the long-term maintenance of big game wildlife populations, while also permitting other activities,” according to the agency.
Glasgow resident and hunter Andrew McKean has advocated for Wilderness Study Area protections in Eastern Montana. He said the Backcountry Conservation Areas sound great on paper but the jury is still out on whether they will protect wildlife habitat.
Former BLM director Patrick Shea laid blame for the lack of wildland protections at the feet of Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and William Perry Pendley, the BLM’s deputy director for Policy and Programs. Shea, who grew up in Sidney, said the two administrators are giving away federal lands to oil and gas producers allowing the public to be exploited by “people who have no concerns about the future of Montana.”
The Montana Wilderness Association issued a call to the state’s “congressional delegation to introduce legislation that would close a loophole allowing oil and gas companies to pay $1.50 an acre for leases that are not bid on during BLM auctions,” according to its news release. “The Lewistown RMP would enable such non-competitive gas leasing to occur since many of the lands addressed in the RMP hold low oil and gas potential, therefore making it likely that companies will be able to pay that low price for the leases and manage them as they like for the duration of the leases.”
Instead of focusing on oil and gas interests, the administration should focus on technology like solar and wind generation on the lands to lessen the impacts of climate change, Shea said.
“It’s high time that Congress reformed the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act,” Bertram said. “It doesn’t reflect the value of public lands today.”