Groups say BLM management plans abandoned multiple-use policy

The Bureau of Land Management has leased thousands of acres of public lands in the Tongue River Valley of southeast Montana. (Courtesy photo)

Some conservation groups are asking the Department of the Interior and Montana’s Congressional delegation to validate the voice of the people and void Bureau of Land Management plans for increased resource extraction.

On Thursday, the Montana Wilderness Association announced it is launching a $25,000 ad campaign calling on Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to restore the BLM’s multiple-use policy for public lands, instead of allowing oil and gas interests to trump public input.

The Montana Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation are also backing the effort, which will include television and radio ads, billboards and social media posts in Montana.

The advertising push was spurred by the recent finalization of BLM management plans that prioritize natural resource extraction above all other uses, in spite of the fact that many Montanans commented on the plans, opposing the change in policy.

Monday was the final day for people to challenge the final draft management plans for both the Missoula and Lewistown offices of the BLM. If the plans are adopted, they’ll drive BLM decisions on a wide variety of actions for at least the next two decades.

The Lewistown BLM Resource Management Plan, in particular, has raised the hackles of some in eastern Montana, said Aubrey Bertram, Montana Wildlife Federation Eastern Montana field director.

The Lewistown BLM office oversees about 650,000 acres of public land and 1.2 million acres of mineral interests below ground, including oil and gas, because the BLM manages mineral leases under all federal land. Under the new resource management plan, 95% of the Lewistown lands could be subject to future oil and gas leases.

“Public lands should be managed for the use that’s most beneficial to the public. In these regions of Montana, the use that’s beneficial is not just oil and gas leasing and development – it’s outdoor recreation and other uses,” said Melissa Petrich, Montana Wildlife Federation Eastern Montana field coordinator. “Prioritizing 95% of these lands for use that only benefits a few individuals is not balanced multiple-use.”

That’s not how the Lewistown resource management plan started out, Bertram said. In 2016, the field office put together a plan that would have provided protection for about 100,000 acres of wilderness quality lands with high wildlife habitat values. But it never saw the light of day.

“Unfortunately, the Trump administration pretty much gutted that plan, dismissing the work of the field office. The final draft doesn’t include any of those protections,” Bertram said. “It really dismisses public input. Citizens came out en masse last summer during the comment period.”

The problem with making most of BLM’s land available for oil and gas leasing is once a company leases a parcel, BLM ceases to manage the land for other uses. Weeds can take over, trails can disappear and access could be lost.

Glasgow resident Andrew McKean, hunting editor for Outdoor Life Magazine, said he got involved during the public comment period in order to try to preserve the two Wilderness Study Areas in the Lewistown district for sportsmen.

“Hunters, anglers and recreationalists have done a good job of advocating for access to public land. But we haven’t done as good a job of demanding that those lands we have access to are functional as far as wildlife values and maintaining traditional uses,” McKean said.

Those wildlife values and traditional uses could be lost on most of the BLM land of eastern Montana under the new management plan, partly because of a 100-year-old law.

The Montana-Dakota Office of the BLM started ramping up auctions of Montana oil and gas leases in 2016, as the Obama administration was ending and the Bakken started to play out. Then, auction listings increased dramatically under the Trump administration as oil and gas companies started nominating more public land parcels for leases.

But, while hundreds of parcels were nominated, a surprisingly high number received no bids. Bertram said oil and gas companies know, if they hold off on bidding, there’s a chance to get leases at a cheaper price.

Under the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act, leases that don’t get competitive bids are then available for the following two years for off-the-shelf purchases at $1.50 per acre the first year.

“It provides another avenue for the oil and gas industry to buy cheap leases when it already enjoys near unfettered access to public lands, Bertram said. “Montana is ground-zero for non-competitive leasing.”

Nationwide, 18% of oil and gas leases were noncompetitive and thus available for purchase in the first quarter of 2019. But looking only at Montana leases, that shot up to 63%, according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis.

Oil and gas companies have up to 10 years to develop their claims on the leases, so often companies will buy the lease parcels and then sit on them for years. Bertram said some oil companies want to impress investors with the number of leases they own, so they’ll buy just to stockpile cheap leases. Or they’ll try to raise money by buying leases now and selling them later at a profit.

That’s why about 60% of oil and gas leases remain undeveloped nationwide. Even so, the BLM isn’t taking care of those parcels for other uses. That’s what could happen to much of eastern Montana.

“These mineral leases turn public property over to private hands, a property interest that prevents other meaningful management,” Bertram said.

Although oil and gas leases weren’t a factor in the smaller Missoula office management plan, the plan gives priority to other extractive activities such as logging and mining.

The final draft incorporated few public comments except for giving a nod to hunters by turning wilderness study areas into “backcountry conservation areas” where logging or mining could still occur but big game populations would be encouraged.

Tracy Stone-Manning, National Wildlife Federation public lands director, said the Missoula and Lewistown plans follow an pattern emerging across the country where the BLM is consistently moving away from multiple-use in favor of single-use by extractive industries, particularly oil and gas.

In addition to the draft Lewistown plan that was trashed, she pointed to 10 years of collaboration that went into a draft BLM management plan in southwest Colorado that also bit the dust in favor of a plan that prioritizes fossil fuel development.

“It’s incredibly worrying that the public voice is being cut out of our public lands. And that is being led from the top,” Stone-Manning said. “That is coming from William Perry Pendley as acting director of (the BLM), a man who believes that the public shouldn’t own public lands, but also from the (Interior) secretary.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.