Montana Letters: A big win in the Big Hole, but work remains

Big Hole River. (Flickr photo)

Anglers from around the world travel to the Big Hole River region, just for the chance to spend a couple days along its Blue-Ribbon trout streams. It’s a place to find stillness and peace, and it’s also a place where families and friends escape to recharge and reconnect.

Clean, cold water is the lifeblood of this community. And yet, despite the risks, the Bureau of Land Management considered selling more than 10,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the Big Hole watershed this year.

Since the leases were first announced, I’ve been connecting with local folks from the area, listening to their stories, and hearing about their concerns. I talked with a rancher who had made a living off oil and gas development but didn’t want drilling platforms near his home. I talked with a widow who found comfort in fly-fishing and the rhythm of life along the river. And I talked to a river guide, who worried the family business would suffer if a spill occurred.

I also talked with a former field geologist, who looked me straight in the eyes and said that he’d been on countless drilling sites, and that every single one had some kind of accident, leak, or other problem.

Oil and gas development isn’t worth the risk.

Access roads and drilling pads slice through native habitat. Toxic substances in fracking chemicals and wastewater spill into waterways and seep into groundwater. And, for a community that is bound to the open landscape, a certain wildness – and the peace of mind that comes with it – is forever lost.

The value of a pristine Big Hole River is worth far more than the fleeting value of the oil and gas we could extract from its watershed. Pushing forward with development on these parcels, despite significant risks to the region’s natural habitat, wildlife, and way of life, would have defied both practical and economic sense.

That’s why so many people, from environmentalists to ranchers and academics to outdoor athletes, banded together to oppose these leases. Local folks spoke up with a diversity of voices and a common purpose.

And, they won.

Even in our hardened political environment, the power of public opinion can move mountains. Or, in this case, keep them exactly the same.

Citing overwhelming opposition to the proposed leases, the Bureau announced this week that it would “indefinitely defer” these parcels from sale. The March oil and gas sale will continue as planned, but it will not include any leases from the Big Hole or Beaverhead watersheds.

I’m thrilled that the Bureau of Land Management has deferred these parcels for the time being. It’s a victory worth celebrating. But we should also take steps to ensure that this community, as well as future generations, never have to fight this battle again.

The public lands in this area, along with other special places across the state, should be permanently withdrawn from all future oil and gas sales.