While Montanans are hunkering down to stop the spread of coronavirus, we are also watching the worst economic downturn in living memory. Tens of thousands of Montanans have already lost their jobs while hundreds of business owners across the state are worried they won’t be able to re-open after the pandemic subsides.

Amidst all of this frightening uncertainty, one thing remains certain: Montana is a breathtaking state where we can find solace in the beauty and wildlife that abound on our public lands. Public lands may well serve as our saving grace, not just for our mental wellbeing, but for our economic recovery as well.

In 2018, Montana’s outdoor recreation economy generated $7.1 billion in consumer spending, $2.2 billion in wages and salaries, and $286 million in state and local tax revenue. It also generated 71,000 jobs. The numbers haven’t been released yet for 2019, but we suspect they will be even better than 2018’s.

Given these numbers, it’s almost guaranteed that outdoor recreation will play a paramount role in Montana’s economic recovery after the pandemic subsides. Unfortunately, while Montanans’ attention has been focused on staying healthy and taking care of our neighbors, Interior Sec. David Bernhardt is moving full steam ahead on selling out our public lands to his former bosses and clients in the oil and gas industry, which will only serve to undermine the economic recovery that public lands can help bring about in Montana.

On April 1, Bernhardt once more extended the tenure of acting Bureau of Land Management director William Perry Pendley, an outspoken advocate for selling off our public lands.

Under the cover of the coronavirus, Bernhardt and Pendley have been accelerating the sale of oil and gas leases in Montana and across the West, enabling buyers to take maximum advantage of an antiquated law that allows speculators to pay next to nothing for those leases by simply waiting until after lease auctions are held. Leases not auctioned off sell for $1.50 an acre per year, permitting buyers to manage parcels of public land mostly as they see fit for up to 10 years, which can include locking the public out and destroying vital wildlife habitat.

Bernhardt and Pendley are currently setting the table for oil and speculators to indulge in this non-competitive leasing system and take control of hundreds of thousand of acres of public lands in central Montana, including some of the most productive wildlife habitat in North America.

This is happening through a BLM resource management plan covering 650,000 acres of public lands that stretch from the Rocky Mountain Front to the Musselshell River and adjoin the Charlie M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. This plan, which could go into effect as early as this summer, would open up 95% of this area to oil and gas leasing, setting the stage for a bargain basement sell-off of public lands and big game habitat.

Let’s be clear: non-competitive leasing creates no jobs, hurts our local economies, and, in the case of central Montana, is unlikely to even lead to oil and gas production. But that will not stop speculators from buying up the rights to thousands of acres of public lands for pennies on the dollar. Why? To bolster their portfolios and make their companies look more attractive to investors.

It’s no wonder that 67% of Montanans disapprove of non-competitive leasing, according to a recent poll released by Montana Wildlife Federation.

Non-competitive oil and gas leasing has been around for decades, but Bernhardt and Pendley have taken this heinous practice to an unprecedented level. It’s high time to put an end to this practice. This is our best hope of protecting what we cherish about Montana and what we will absolutely need for our economic recovery.

Aubrey Bertram is Montana Wilderness Association’s eastern Montana field director. Melissa Petrich is Montana Wildlife Federation’s eastern Montana field coordinator.