OPINION: Big Hole wrong place for oil and gas development

By Hunter Stier - October 2, 2018 - Originally published in the Missoulian

I’m one of thousands of Montana sportsmen who celebrate and champion North America's outdoor heritage by hunting and fishing in wild places. In southwest Montana we are fortunate to have an abundance of these spaces, and it is no coincidence it’s home to an incredible abundance of wildlife, from brown trout to cutthroat, sage grouse to elk. The area’s intact, quality habitat makes it a destination hot spot for outdoor enthusiasts. One does not have to spend much time in Dillon to witness firsthand the role that outdoor recreation plays in the local economy.

That’s why I’m concerned about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s plan to sell oil and gas leases in the Big Hole and Beaverhead watersheds, areas in close proximity to invaluable wildlife habitat. Oil and gas extraction would endanger these delicate areas and jeopardize a range of other local values. From threatening our local economy and environment to decreasing opportunities for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation, Zinke seems to be ignoring the significant contributions these lands have to the average Montanan’s quality of life.

The Bureau of Land Management quietly disclosed in July its intention to lease more than 12,000 acres of public lands for oil and gas development in the Beaverhead and Big Hole watersheds. This is not an announcement to be approached with a laissez-faire attitude: Many of these lands are located near important Montana headwaters and will be auctioned off before the end of the year.

The damage that will inevitably be caused by this industrial development is apparent. It will destroy important habitat for deer and elk that roam our grasslands and mountain ranges, and it could negatively impact our precious Big Hole River, threatening fisheries, wildlife, livestock and our own drinking water.

Our clean, healthy environment is at stake, and with it, our quality of life. Just as our local residents and businesses depend on and benefit from our protected landscapes, so do the thousands of tourists who come to share in them every year. These visitors contribute in spades to our outdoor recreation economy, an industry that generates an annual $7.1 billion in Montana.

I can’t understand why Zinke wants to facilitate development near Big Hole and Beaverhead. Low development potential coupled with high risk of air and water pollution, all while disturbing valuable landscapes and wildlife habitat, make this plan unacceptable. We’ve seen these risks taken before, and the impacts are well documented — these significant and permanent repercussions would burden our local communities, both financially and by compromising our outdoor traditions.

To make matters worse, the BLM is becoming more lenient in its dealings with the extractive industries. The administration just opted to make voluntary a series of once-mandatory mitigation efforts in place to soften or reduce potential environmental impacts.

The BLM limited the public comment period on this matter to only 10 days. Once these areas are leased for development, the companies will own the right to extract oil, gas or other resources for at least 10 years, and indefinitely once production begins. The public will have fewer and fewer opportunities to weigh in with every step of development, making it all the more important that we speak up now, before it starts.

We must let Secretary Zinke and our Montana delegation know that our national public lands in Montana are a big reason we choose to live, work and raise our families here. These resources and the opportunities they provide are more valuable to us than any oil or gas that may or may not be drawn from them. We don’t oppose resource extraction, but some places in southwest Montana are simply too special to risk.

Hunter Stier is a wildlife and habitat consultant living in Dillon with his wife. He is a life member of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

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