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Big Hole River

The Big Hole river is shown in this file photograph

Thousands of acres could be opened up to lease for oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracking in the Big Hole and Beaverhead river watersheds.

The land is in Beaverhead and Madison counties. 

The Bureau of Land Management, which is considering leasing the areas, says in its environmental assessment that oil and gas development potential is “relatively low” for Madison and Beaverhead counties. This has some environmentalists scratching their heads as to why the BLM wants to put the land up for potential lease to begin with.

One area the BLM has identified as a potential for lease is just south of the Big Hole River at Glen. The Big Hole is a highly popular float and a blue ribbon trout fishery.

A few others appear to be close to the Beaverhead River, another popular fishing destination.

Beaverhead and Madison are not the only Montana counties in which the BLM is looking to put up sites for lease to the oil and gas industry. Counties in eastern and central Montana also have potential lease sites. 

The lease sites in Beaverhead and Madison counties total 12,889 acres. The minimum bid for the oil and gas industry is $2 an acre.

The bulk of the land – 12,490 acres —  is in Beaverhead County.

Mike McGinley, Beaverhead County commissioner, said last week that commissioners recently became aware of the proposed leasing but that the county commission has not had a chance to discuss it.

Dan Allhands, a Madison County commissioner, said Madison County is also aware but has no position on the proposed lease.

“We’re neutral on it at this point,” he said.

Development has the potential to bring tax money. Revenue would be split between the state and the federal government.

The bulk of the land up for possible lease is considered by the BLM to have “low,” or even in some instances, “very low” potential. One of the potential leases is in an area considered to have a moderate level of potential for development.

But the potential leasing has environmentalists worried, particularly for the Big Hole River.

“The Big Hole? Really?” said Tracy Stone-Manning via email.

Stone-Manning was Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief of staff. She is now the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president for public lands.

Nick Gevock, Montana Wildlife Federation conservation director, also brought up the Big Hole.

“The idea of drilling for oil near one of the finest trout fisheries in Montana – I’m not sure that’s the best place for it, both from the standpoint of wildlife habitat as well as water quality,” he said from his Helena-based office.

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One of the most troubling aspects of the deal is the way the BLM appears to be handling it, say some critics.

Guy Alsentzer, founder and executive director of the Bozeman-based group, Upper Missouri Waterkeepers, said the BLM has revved up the process to supercharged speed.

Instead of a 30- or 60-day buffer for comment after the initial announcement, the BLM gave a 10-day notice to the public in July that the parcels would potentially go up for lease.

Right now, the public has until August 24 to comment on the environmental assessment. The BLM is giving the public 15 days to comment on the fact that the agency found no significant impact on the 102 parcels in total. (See information box.)

Alsentzer says that is moving way too fast.

“This leaves everybody feeling blindsided,” Alsentzer said by phone last week.

He said that for an oil or gas lease that has the potential to be controversial, a 90-day public comment period used to be normal.

Leasing land anywhere near the Big Hole River is controversial, Alsentzer said.

“We know what the value of the Big Hole and the Beaverhead rivers are,” Alsentzer said.

Jonathan Moor, BLM public information officer, said by email that the BLM has “streamlined” its public commenting process.

Moor said there is only one well anticipated if the proposed leases go through.

Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, told The Montana Standard last month that southwest Montana is not the place where oil and gas investment is likely.

Which is why some environmentalists are wondering why the BLM wants to auction off so much land for lease in the southwestern portion of the Treasure State.

Stone-Manning said the math doesn’t add up.

Oil was going for about $66 a barrel as of Friday.

According to the BLM, estimates of new wells drilled and hydraulically fractured in the U.S. from 2011 to 2014 amounted to 25,000 to 30,000 new wells each year. Most of that activity has taken place in Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

“Demand is low, thousands of permits are already in place and soon we’ll be importing just 11 percent of our oil. What’s the screaming need to open up Montana’s public lands?” Stone-Manning asked.

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