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Bills to release wilderness on BLM land could open up oil, gas development, environmentalists say

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West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area

The West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area.

One of Rep. Greg Gianforte’s bills to release Wilderness Study Areas on hundreds of thousands of Bureau of Land Management acres could, if passed, potentially open up oil and gas leases for drilling in southwest Montana, some environmentalists say.

The Republican Congressman has two Wilderness Study Area bills before the House of Representatives. While Sen. Steve Daines's bill to release WSA land has brought debate about WSAs on the U.S. Forest Service, Gianforte’s companion bills in the House would take Daines’s legislation further. Gianforte's two bills remove more WSA land than the Republican senator’s legislation envisioned because the second bill, Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, includes BLM land.

During a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands public hearing last month, two high-ranking agency officials and one Montana county commissioner spoke in favor of releasing the WSAs on BLM land.

Brian Steed, deputy director of policy and program for the BLM, said the agency is in support of the bill. He said removing the WSAs from BLM removes “one-size-fits-all restrictions.”

It would allow for more trails, more grazing, more fire preparedness, and insect resiliency, he said. WSAs are managed as if they are designated wilderness, so what land managers can do has been established by a complex set of rules and is highly restrictive.

A Ravalli County commissioner also testified at the Washington D.C. hearing that removing WSAs from BLM land would improve wildfire protections in Ravalli County.

Beaverhead County Commissioners also support the bill.

In a November letter to Gianforte, Beaverhead County Commissioners expressed their full support of releasing the WSA designation from BLM land.

“Management prescriptions for these areas should be developed to address multiple uses including motorized recreation, grazing, timber, minerals, transmission lines, communication towers, as well as ecological services,” the Beaverhead County commissioners wrote.

But Montana environmentalists oppose the legislation. They say the public has been left out of a process that should have more discussion before Congress acts.

Concern for WSAs in Beaverhead County

WSAs on BLM land would be released in Beaverhead County if Gianforte's second bill, Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, becomes law.

That land includes areas in the Blacktail Mountains south of Dillon, the Centennial Mountains along the Idaho border, Farlin Creek in the East Pioneer foothills, and the Ruby Mountains east of Dillon.

Of the 72,920 acres under question in these four locations, 49,865 acres have been recommended by the BLM as suitable for wilderness protection, say environmentalists.

Ted Brewer, communications director for the Montana Wilderness Association, said only an act of Congress can designate public land as wilderness. He said the release would put all of the current WSA land open to development by oil and gas companies.

Gianforte's representative Travis Hall says Gianforte will clarify the language on the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act if he has opportunity to do so when the committee marks up the bill. Hall said language has been prepared.

Mike Penfold, retired BLM Montana state director, said he was one of the agency officials who reviewed the WSA land decades ago.

“The BLM looked at the Dillon area. We flew areas; we landed helicopters; we talked to ranchers. It was not the kind of intensive kind of look that should be made before there are irretrievable decisions,” he said.

Penfold said the criteria the BLM used when recommending which parts of the WSAs would best be set aside for wilderness protection 40 years ago included choosing land of more than 5,000 acres and no significant amount of human development.

Tracy Stone-Manning, who left Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's staff after the 2016 election to become the associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, was the sole voice of dissent at the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands public hearing in June. She said there has not been enough public input and that a minority supports the release of WSAs to multiple-use public land.

She said elk need a lot of range and these undisturbed areas provide security for elk.

“All hunters benefit from these areas even though they don’t hunt in them,” she said to the committee in June.

Tim Bozorth, a retired BLM Dillon resource area manager, said that when the BLM recommended certain areas within the WSAs to remain wilderness, the BLM was under the Ronald Reagan administration.

“These aren’t pie-in-the-sky liberal land grabs as called by some,” Bozorth said. “They were very conservatively developed under a Republican administration.”

Bozorth said if there had been a lot of development potential 25 years ago, the BLM wouldn’t have recommended those nearly 50,000 acres as wilderness-worthy.

Gas or oil drilling unlikely

Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, also said the likelihood of oil or gas drilling in Beaverhead County is “pretty slim.”

He said investment for development and drilling for oil or natural gas is more likely to head to places like the Bakken in North Dakota because that’s a “sure bet to get a return on your investment.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of drilling in southern Beaverhead County,” Olson said.

But Olson said the land should become available for multiple uses.

"We've looked at WSAs. They've been studying them since 1988. They could have made decisions by now if they could have been turned into wilderness," Olson said. "Either designate them wilderness or release and go back to multiple use."

He also said that if there is oil or natural gas exploration, it wouldn't be as destructive as the opposition claims.

"We’re not going to drill every square inch of Montana," he said. "If there are areas suitable, there may be exploration work going on, but it’s not everywhere."

Potential economic benefit lost

Beaverhead County Commissioners wrote in their November letter to Gianforte that there are over 10 million acres of wilderness and national parks within one day's drive of Dillon.

"They are ample in meeting ecological, environmental and human needs for wilderness in this region."

The commissioners would like to see all of the WSA acreage on BLM land in Beaverhead County become available for multiple use. They cited the economic potential of "responsible, use-oriented resource utilization on public lands" in their letter and the potential financial benefit to a strapped county with little industry.

Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley said Beaverhead County's been asking Congress to act on the WSAs for 10 to 15 years.

He said the county spent $2.5 million to fix Big Sheep Creek Road. That road runs along a blue-ribbon trout stream, and the commissioners would like to see the road moved away from the creek.

But Hidden Pastures WSA is in the way of that, he said.

But Beaverhead County Commissioners have come under fire for their position.

Three Beaverhead County residents who are also members of the Montana Wilderness Association have sent repeated requests since last year to the commissioners to rescind the commissioners' letters of support to both Gianforte and Daines to remove WSA protections in Beaverhead County.

Alan Weltzien, a University of Montana-Western English professor, said the commissioners sent their letters supporting Montana's Republican Congressmen without a public discussion. Weltzien, along with Jack Kirkley and Pete Bengeyfield, want commissioners to hold a public hearing on the matter.

Weltzien said he has hiked the Beaverhead County WSA land and said they are places of great solitude. He also said the outdoor economy is driving the state and the vast majority of Montanans want wildland preservation.

McGinley said the commissioners would likely discuss the three men's request at their next commission meeting Monday.

It's letters like the one Gianforte received from the Beaverhead County Commissioners last year that the Congressman points to when he says he has received public input on the issue. In addition, the Montana Legislature passed a resolution in 2017 requesting Congress to act on the WSAs.

The opposition to the bills says their voices haven't been heard.

"There is very vocal opposition to this bill," Brewer said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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