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Big Hole River

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest encompasses 3,200 miles, including the Big Hole River.

Despite an overwhelmingly negative response earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with most of its planned oil and gas lease sales in Beaverhead and Madison counties.

Environmental groups and many local citizens are concerned that potential drilling in these parcels could negatively impact the near-pristine Big Hole River as well as the Beaverhead River, both of which are popular recreation spots south of Butte.

There have been a couple of glitches for the BLM in its effort to move forward. That has altered the landscape somewhat.

One hitch is that 3,065 acres were taken off the table, at least for now. That 3,065 acres is in the Frying Pan Basin, about 8 miles west of Dillon and 4 miles east of the ghost town of Argenta.

The potential oil and gas lease sales for those 3,065 acres have been deferred while agency officials review sage grouse protections in that general location.

But the lease sale for the rest of the 9,825 acres — almost all in Beaverhead County — is now set for a March 27 date.

The parcels were supposed to be on the table for oil and gas lease sales on Dec. 11, but due to pending litigation in Idaho, all of the 12,889 acres were temporarily deferred.

That deferral didn’t last long. BLM put the 9,825 acres back on the table by Nov. 20.

But now those 9,825 acres are up for another public comment period — this one lasting for 30 days, as opposed to the previous 15, due to a court injunction. (See information box.)

It is a public comment period that appears to have blindsided many.

Dave Chadwick, executive director of Montana Wildlife Federation, was not aware of the new 30-day public comment period nor that 9,825 acres had been put back on the table for oil and gas developers for the March lease sale.

The Montana Wildlife Federation has been following this issue closely and has a lawsuit pending over oil and gas lease sales on other public lands in Montana.

“I didn’t know,” Chadwick said Friday morning by phone. “They’re just throwing the gates open and leasing everything they can get their hands on.”

The BLM didn’t respond to specific questions about the sale other than to provide basic information that leasing on 3,065 acres has been deferred. But an earlier emailed statement made by BLM to The Montana Standard on the oil and gas leases said: “The purchase of a lease has no impacts.”

“Potential impacts occur should the lease be developed. Because the vast majority of land in Beaverhead and Madison County are in a low or very low category of potential for development, only one well is anticipated.”

The BLM held a truncated 15-day public comment period in August on the proposed oil and gas leases. Despite that short window, the BLM received 250 individual letters and 5,000 form letters from ordinary citizens as well as comments from 20 environmental groups, other governmental agencies, and tribal groups.

Some of the responses asked questions about the potential leasing, but only one response appeared to be wholeheartedly in favor of the move.

The Idaho suit was brought by Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity.  They sued the BLM over shortened public comment periods on land that, if developed, could put protected sage grouse habitat at risk. They asked for and received an injunction putting BLM lease sales on hold, including the Montana planned lease sales.

“They have essentially made it difficult or impossible for the public to find out about oil and gas leasing decisions by shortening or completely eliminating the comment period,” said Michael Saul, a spokesperson for the Idaho chapter of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is not something happening in just Idaho but all across the entire country.”

Assuming the oil and gas leases take place March 27, the BLM is offering the subsurface rights for $2 an acre. If no one bids the day of the sale, then an interested developer can offer $1.50 an acre for those rights for two years after March 27.

Chadwick said such low prices are bad for taxpayers, who are supposed to reap the benefits of leasing subsurface rights to public lands.

“Developers can lock in leases at really cheap prices,” Chadwick said. “It’s not a great thing for taxpayers at $2 an acre.”

BLM, in its previously emailed statement to the Standard, said that in the event there is oil or gas subsurface development on any of these parcels, groundwater aquifers would be protected by agency regulations.

But many — including Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands for the National Wildlife Federation — worry about the potential risk to the Big Hole River, in particular.

“The Big Hole is beloved for its incredible fishing and hunting opportunities and, of course, for its long-standing ranching way of life. It’s up to Montanans to let Secretary Ryan Zinke know that the risk of drilling in the Big Hole isn’t worth the reward for oil corporations,” she said via email.

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