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Imagine if someone offered you $2 billion worth of mineral royalties in exchange for the go-ahead to empty southeastern Montana's aquifers, salt-load area-rivers, and access private property over landowner objections. Would you take the deal?

The federal Bureau of Land Management recently signed on the proverbial dotted line, approving just such an arrangement with its final environmental impact statement for federal coalbed methane in Montana.

While this plan might be a dream for federal tax coffers, it would be a nightmare for Montana.

Draining aquifers The federal government's plan will drain aquifers used for drinking and stock water by 240 to 600 feet, with recharge taking over 100 years.

This would dry up valuable springs and wells. Most agree that reinjecting the water back into aquifers makes good sense. But in one fleeting paragraph, the federal plan dismisses reinjection.

As if draining aquifers weren't enough, the federal plan would also increase salts in rivers used for irrigation. Increased salt levels in irrigation water would devastate crops and soils - and this is according to the federal government's own analysis. The plan rejects water treatment - for which many technologies exist - again without explanation.

To add insult to injury, more than 90 percent of federal methane development in Montana would happen on private land - often over landowners' strenuous objections. These landowners would see no benefit from methane development while suffering the bulk of the impacts. The federal plan does not require methane operators to reach surface use agreements with landowners - so landowners could not protect their property.

Does that sound like a fair deal for farmers and ranchers in Montana?

My family and I operate the Rocker Six Cattle Co. on Rosebud Creek. We have 16 springs on our ranch and water rights for each spring. We get about 12 inches of rain in a good year. As is the case for most farms and ranches in the area, these springs are critical to our ranching operations.

Under the federal plan, we could lose every spring. We would also suffer salt-loading from several thousand upstream methane wells discharging water in the Rosebud Creek drainage. Rosebud Creek subirrigates our alfalfa meadows - meaning the alfalfa roots draw on the high water level. Because we can't control when we irrigate, when the water gets too salty the alfalfa dies, and our soil would suffer permanent damages.

Our ranch won't be alone in experiencing these impacts: All along the Tongue, Powder, and Little Powder rivers, landowners would suffer dried up wells and springs, salt-loading of irrigation water, and private property right violations.

Seeking fair plan The BLM's environmental impact statement is illegal. The federal government can't authorize a development plan that would violate laws in Montana - including laws governing water rights, water quality, and property rights. That's why the Northern Plains Resource Council challenged this plan in court. The federal government's final EIS is an affront to the basic rights of all Montanans to enjoy our property, water rights, and quality of life.

We all need energy to light and heat our homes. Coalbed methane could be a good source of clean energy - but only if it's developed responsibly. We know solutions exist to solve most of the problems associated with methane development - including reinjection, water treatment and private property rights protections.

When the federal government comes forward with a proposal that strikes a balance between the development of coalbed methane and the protection of southeastern Montana's water, farms and ranches and communities, then we'll all be ready to move forward with coalbed methane development in Montana.

Clint McRae is a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grass-roots conservation and family agriculture group.

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