Landowners, conservation groups protest BLM energy leases on Yellowstone River

A service truck drives past an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Landowners and conservation groups near Livingston are protesting oil and gas leases on the Yellowstone River. (REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/File Photo)

A handful of conservation groups and Montana landowners are protesting several oil and gas leases offered by the Bureau of Land Management along the banks of the Yellowstone River.

Opponents said the leases aren’t suitable for the area, which relies on revenue generated by tourism and outdoor recreation.

“These leases could open the door for the oil and gas industry to frack and drill on the edge of our community,” said Michelle Uberuaga with the Park County Environmental Council. “Oil and gas development in this area could have significant impacts to the Yellowstone River, our public health and the community. This is clearly not the best or highest use of our public resources.”

The BLM’s Butte Field Office was closed Monday for the federal holiday. The agency plans to offer 109 leases in western and central Montana this March during its quarterly sale.

Those leases include areas just south of the Yellowstone River, as well as others on the boundary of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Opponents view the BLM’s encroachment on such valued public lands as a one-sided approach to the Interior Department’s new oil and gas strategy.

“This lease everything, everywhere approach shows that Interior’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda means a direct assault on cherished Montana landscapes and recreational assets,” said Peter Aengst, the Wilderness Society’s regional director. “It threatens the outdoor economy they support.”

Area business and property owners have also joined the protest, with some opposing what they fear will turn Livingston into a “mini Williston,” a reference to the North Dakota oil and gas boom town.

Tourism and agriculture are the two biggest economic drivers in Park County’s economy, and public lands play a vital role in supporting both sectors, opponents said.

“Secretary (Ryan) Zinke understands the importance of public lands to Park County residents, and we urge him to take the same approach he has taken with the gold mines in Paradise Valley,” said Dan Vermillion of Sweetwater Travel. “We urge him to cancel these leases.”

Last spring, Zinke proposed a ban on new gold mining claims on public lands near Yellowstone National Park and said he would consider blocking other types of mining.

Opponents of the lease sale said the wild lands and clean water surrounding Yellowstone National Park, including the Yellowstone River’s upper reaches, sustain the area’s economy.

“My business depends on people that visit these wild places and hope to catch a fish or see a bear,” said Dan Sullivan, owner of Mustang Fresh Foods. “The BLM has the responsibility to manage these lands for all Americans, not for oil and gas developers.”