More than 370 miles of roads would be closed and two new areas totaling more than 10,800 acres would be protected for their cultural resources under the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Resource Management Plan for the Billings area that was released on Friday for public comment.
“The travel component is big because the other two RMPs that just got released didn’t do site-specific travel planning,” said Jim Sparks, manager of the Billings Field Office, referring to the HiLine and Miles City plans.
The Billings-area plan also addresses other uses of the landscape, everything from oil and gas drilling to target shooting on more than 434,000 acres of BLM land in Big Horn, Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland and Yellowstone counties.
The Billings office also oversees management of the 51-acre Pompeys Pillar National Monument as well as 4,298 acres of public land in Big Horn County, Wyo. — a portion of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
The Resource Management Plan sorely needed an update; the last one was written in 1984 and has been amended 10 times.
“The old plan wasn’t very specific and didn’t cover many resources,” Sparks said.
The new plan is expected to last 20 years. The document’s preferred alternative is meant “to strike a balance between long-term conservation of public land and resources within the planning area with commodity production, recreational access and services.”
The Montana Wilderness Association, which had lobbied for greater protection, supported the plan in a press release, saying the group was “pleased that Bureau of Land Management recognized the special qualities of scenic places like Meeteetse Spires on the Beartooth Front, backcountry areas on BLM lands in the Pyror Mountains, and historic sites such as Weatherman Draw.”
Here are some details from the plan.
Roads: The Billings office decided to incorporate details for 11 Travel Management Areas into its plan because of the amount of motorized recreation use the region sees. In the area, 66 miles of road would be closed to all vehicles and another 313 miles would only be open for administrative use. That leaves 530 miles of open routes, 69 miles open only to vehicles with a 50-inch or less wheelbase, 15 miles with seasonal closures and 1,357 acres in the South Hills open only to motorcycle use.
Sage grouse: The plan incorporated new sage grouse management proposals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into the RMP, allowing no surface occupancy for resource development in designated sage grouse priority areas.
Areas of Critical Environmental Concern: The BLM proposes adding two ACECs to the nine that already exist — the 8,251-acre Grove Creek ACEC, south of Red Lodge along the Beartooth Front, and the 2,606-acre Pryor Foothills ACEC, which doubles as a Resource Natural Area. In addition, acreage was added to the Meteetsee Spires ACEC on the Beartooth Front and the Weatherman Draw ACEC, known for its pictographs and petroglyphs, was expanded by 8,000 acres. All together, 38,786 acres are protected under the designation.
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Wild-horse range: Domestic horse use would be limited to day use only on the 39,900-acre Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, which was expanded. To ride on the range a free use permit would be required to ensure animals have health certifications to protect wild horses from disease transmission.
Wild and Scenic River: Two sections of Crooked Creek, which amounts to only 3.1 miles of stream, are recommended for protection for their wild and scenic values, as well as to ensure the survival of a genetically pure population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
Wilderness Study Areas: The Billings Field Office would continue to manage four areas for possible wilderness designation by Congress: the Twin Coulee WSA in Musselshell County; the Burnt Timber Canyon, Big Horn Tack-On and Pryor Mountain WSAs in Carbon and Wyoming’s Big Horn County. All together, they total more than 28,600 acres. If Congress chooses not to designate the study areas as wilderness, all but the Twin Coulee WSA would be managed as ACECs. Twin Coulee would be opened to mineral leasing.
“Of the 434,154 surface acres the Billings’ Office oversees, only 1,925 acres are currently Lands with Wilderness Characteristics (LWCs): 0.004%,” wrote Cal Cumin, president of the Eastern Wildlands Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association, in an email. “Under the preferred Alternative (D), this amount increases to a whopping 0.036 percent. These numbers are important, because a lot of people seem to think BLM is part of the mythic government land grab; these numbers put that into perspective.”
SRMAs: More than 110,800 acres would be managed as Special Recreation Management Areas, two of which are existing — Sundance Lodge Recreation Area (387 acres), Four Dances Natural Area ACEC (784 acres) — and another seven that would be added. The seven new SRMAs are: Shepherd Ah-Nei Recreation Area (4,680 acres), Acton Recreation Area (3,697 acres), Yellowstone River Corridor (½ mile corridor from centerline) (6,311 acres), Asparagus Point (158 acres), South Hills TMA (1,357 acres) Pryor Mountain TMA (81,227 acres) and Horsethief TMA (12,261 acres).
ERMAs: Two areas receiving concentrated recreation use would be managed as Extensive Recreation Management Areas: 17 Mile (2,080 acres), which is popular as a shooting range north of Billings, and the Mill Creek/Bundy TMA area, 34,239 acres of scattered holdings north of the Yellowstone River and Pompeys Pillar. The difference between an SRMA and an ERMA is that there is typically more development at an SRMA.
Target shooting: The BLM is proposing to close more areas close to population centers to target shooting. In all, the acreage closed for resource and safety concerns totals more than 31,500 and includes many ACECs and SRMAs.
Grazing: Livestock grazing would be permitted on 387,000 acres with more than 28,000 acres closed.
Minerals: Fluid minerals would be available for leasing on about 6,100 acres with standard lease terms and with moderate constraints on almost 600,000 acres. Gas and oil leasing would not be available for leasing on almost 73,000 acres. Coal is not available for leasing on about 281,000 acres.
Economic impact: The combined effects of the activities associated with BLM management are estimated to contribute more than 470 local jobs and $19.94 million to $20.81 million in wage and proprietor’s income. Annual revenues to the federal government would be between $8 million to $9.8 million; payment to the counties would be between $4.21 million to $4.5 million, most of which would be related to mineral leasing, rents and production royalties, again, varying by alternative.
Prescribed fire and logging: Over a 10-year period, prescribed and nonprescribed fire fuels treatments would be performed on 21,700 acres. Over 20 years, about 18,000 acres of forest and woodlands would be available for logging, with an estimated 1,780 acres of that total available for the sale of wood products.