On July 30 the Bureau of Land Management issued a press release regarding two resource management plans the agency has been developing since 2015, one for public lands in central Montana and another for lands in western Montana.
The BLM waited several hours to release the plans after the press release went out — a blatant attempt to score some good press before several conservation and sportsmen organizations, some of which have been involved in these RMP processes since the beginning, had a chance to review the plans and comment.
No matter how much grandiose spin acting BLM director William Perry Pendley has put on these plans, they are as much an affront to Montana’s outdoor values as Pendley’s views on public lands. Pendley is an outspoken advocate for selling off all public lands. And if he can’t sell them off outright, he’ll take every opportunity to sell them out.
Flying in the face of the BLM’s multiple-use mandate, the Lewistown plan, covering 650,000 acres of public lands in central Montana, opens 95% of the surface area to oil and gas development.
It also flies in the face of the work that the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office did in gathering the input of hundreds of Montanans who have a stake in the places addressed in this plan.
Based on that input, the office initially recommended protecting 100,000 acres for their wilderness character, having identified 200,000 acres that meet the standard for wilderness protection. These are places that have some of the last intact grasslands in the U.S., providing some of the most productive habitat in North America for big game and upland birds.
None of these places will receive much protection in the final RMP.
Instead of applying strong protections for any place included in those 200,000 acres, the BLM is applying a “Backcountry Conservation Area” (BCA) status for a few of them . While it might be appropriate for certain public lands, the BCA status does not offer anything close to sufficient protection for Crooked Creek and many other places in central Montana. That’s because BCAs, as defined in this plan, will still allow for oil and gas leasing, even though there is very little oil and gas potential in central Montana.
So why is the BLM allowing for oil and gas development in areas where there is so little potential for it? It has to do with noncompetitive oil and gas leasing. In July, Sen. Tester introduced the Leasing Market Efficiency Act, which would put an end to this insidious practice that threatens the integrity of our public lands.
Leases that companies do not bid on during routine BLM auctions are sold off the shelf, noncompetitively, for $1.50 an acre. Oil and gas speculators like to scoop up these bottom-basement leases in an effort to pad their portfolios and make themselves look more attractive to investors. In 2018 alone, close to 75% of oil and gas leases in Montana were issued this way. The BLM has to then spend taxpayer money and time on administering these leases rather than focusing on improving wildlife habitat, maintaining recreation opportunities, safeguarding natural treasures, and everything else the agency is supposed to do.
Pendley was recently nominated to become the BLM’s official director, and the press release the BLM issued on July 30 was a thinly veiled attempt to greenwash the terrible reputation he has in Montana for defending oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine and for trying to subvert our stream access laws. He remains as dangerous as he’s always been, and no amount of spin will deflect from the fact these RMPs undermine some of the last intact prairie habitat Montana has to offer.
Aubrey Bertram is the eastern Montana field director at Montana Wilderness Association.
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