By Laura Lundquist - May 20, 2019 - Originally published in the Missoula Current.
The Bureau of Land Management wants to open protected lands near Missoula and across the state to multiple-use activities and resource extraction, ignoring input from Montana conservation groups.
Last week, the Montana-Dakotas BLM did a coordinated release of three draft regional Resource Management Plans, including one from the Missoula office, which would guide management decisions on public land for the next 20 to 30 years.
The Missoula Office RMP has two alternatives, in addition to the “no action” or A alternative, for managing the BLM’s 163,000 acres in and around the Garnet Range between Missoula and Avon. The Missoula office also oversees 268,000 acres of mineral rights underlying land owned by a variety of entities.
The agency backs Alternative B, which makes several changes to the way lands are managed, because its objective is to “produce the greatest quantities of forest products from vegetation restoration activities.”
In particular, Alternative B reduces the amount of land where wilderness characteristics are protected.
The category “land with wilderness characteristics” is one rung below “wilderness study area” as far as land protection. An “area of critical environmental concern” is two rungs down but still gets a fair amount of protection compared to general-use management.
To qualify as land with wilderness characteristics, an area must be of sufficient size, naturalness and outstanding opportunities for either solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation.
Alternative B would eliminate protection from all 2,500 acres that were identified in 2014 as land with wilderness characteristics near the region’s three wilderness study areas. It would also eliminate half of the 1,225 acres now considered areas of critical environmental concern.
Alternative C would protect the 2,500 acres with wilderness characteristics, because C’s objective “emphasizes a greater degree of focus on project level wildlife habitat and riparian conservation and restoration, and on preservation of historic resources.” But the BLM doesn’t support Alternative C.
Neither does the Montana Wilderness Association, which wants more land protected, not less, said spokesperson Erin Clark.
“During scoping, there were 16,600 acres that we recommended for lands with wilderness characteristics. This plan does very little in that regard. In fact, the preferred alternative B recommends zero acres for management as lands with wilderness characteristics,” Clark said.
More importantly, Clark said the Missoula Office RMP went too far in outlining how it would manage the region’s three wilderness study areas should Congress removed them from the wilderness list. The areas are Wales Creek and Hoodoo Mountain high in the Garnet Range north of Drummond and Quigg West northwest of Philipsburg.
For now, the BLM has to manage the areas for wilderness qualities, but that could change. Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have both sponsored bills that would strip the areas of wilderness protection. If that happens, under Alternative B, the BLM would manage half of Wales Creek as an area of critical environmental concern and downgrade protection for the rest of the WSA’s.
“They say ‘if wilderness study area status is removed, here is how we’ll manage them.’ That is not something that you typically see in a plan – where it would go so far as to be pre-emptive. This plan is being highly suggestive in indicating that might be likely to happen sometime soon,” Clark said. “In the Missoula plan, what has happened is not inconsistent with what the BLM has been telling us to expect. It makes it no less disappointing, but it is less surprising than what we’re seeing in the Lewistown plan.”
The three RMP’s for Missoula, Lewistown and Miles City were scheduled to be released to the public in late 2018, but they were delayed when the three offices were required to send the drafts to Washington, D.C., for review and revision.
The Montana Wilderness Association filed Freedom of Information requests and learned that earlier versions of the Lewistown RMP protected more land than the draft released last week.
Many Montana hunters are also disappointed with the plans, because all three do the same thing: reduce the size and number of protected areas in favor of resource extraction. That means less habitat is protected for game species.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers spokesman Greg Munther said his organization was disappointed in all three plans because for the past five years, BHA has been telling the BLM to protect important habitat areas such as WSA’s.
“That, from a hunter’s standpoint, is the best of the Garnet Range – it’s the area that isn’t roaded so there’s elk, there’s moose. It’s a refugia, so when all the shooting goes on in lower areas, there’s an opportunity for people to pack in and hunt off of roads. We lament the idea that all the Garnets are now going to be open to roading,” Munther said.
The Missoula plan is disappointing, but the Lewistown plan is even worse, Munther said, because it makes every acre of BLM land available for oil and gas development. FOIA documents showed the 2016 version of the Lewistown RMP set aside 100,000 of 200,000 acres identified as having wilderness characteristics.
“In the 50 years I’ve been deeply involved in public land planning, I don’t think I’ve seen a plan that favors energy development and disregards conservation as much as the Lewistown RMP,” says Mike Penfold, former Montana and Dakotas BLM director, in a release. “This is a plan obviously tailored for special interests, not for Montanans or the rest of the American public.”
If the eastern Montana plains turn into the Bakken, mule deer, antelope and sage grouse could disappear just as they have around the oil fields south of Pinedale, Wyo.
“I’m sure this is top-down direction from the current administration. There are a lot of good biologists and land managers that I’m sure are having a tough time with this alternative. They likely recognize the implications of opening up the land to whatever surface use might be proposed,” Munther said. “It flies in the face of all the collaborative efforts that BHA as well as other sportsmen’s groups have worked on for years with other groups, trying to work out the differences and find common ground. This top down direction ignores all that effort, so we’re disappointed to say the least.”
The Montana Wilderness Association also blamed the Trump administration and Interior Sec. David Berhhardt for editing management plans to favor industry over conservation concerns. Clark said the slant toward corporations is clear in the language, if not the preferred alternatives.
For example, in the section titled “Environmental Consequences,” the Missoula RMP discusses only jobs and social and economic impact. The natural environment is mentioned in one sentence that says, “active forest management will have negative quality of life effects to stakeholders who value natural processes.”
In a related instance of word manipulation, last week, the BLM replaced its original conservation-focused mission statement with one that emphasizes the economic value of public land.
“Just like in the Lewistown RMP, it’s clear that there’s significant pressure being placed on our local BLM offices by national-level D.C. staff and national priorities,” Clark said. “The national level pressure is to maximize timber harvest, to maximize resource extraction even more generally. And that pressure is apparent in the plans that were released (last week).”
Public comment is open until Aug. 15. The draft RMP, as well as information about upcoming public meetings and instructions for submitting comments, is online at: https://go.usa.gov/xmyyG. For more information about the RMP, contact project leader Maggie Ward at 406-329-3914.
Missoula County, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the U.S. Forest Service Region 1 are cooperating agencies for the Missoula RMP; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes declined to sign on.