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New BLM plans designate Montana recreation areas, over state objections

New BLM plans designate Montana recreation areas, over state objections

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BLM Flight 2

Current mining operations, old logging sites and beetle-killed stands mix with unroaded forest in the Garnet Mountains, which hold the Wales Creek and Hoodoo Mountain wilderness study areas northeast of Missoula. 

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved several new Backcountry Conservation Areas, including three in the Missoula area, as part of its revised Resource Management Plans for large parts of Montana.

These are the same resource management plans featured in a lawsuit by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who alleges BLM acting director William Perry Pendley oversaw the rejection of state requests to protect places with wilderness or special habitat concerns, while illegally running the bureau without congressional confirmation.

In a piece released this week (see Opinion section), Pendley credited President Donald Trump’s administration with “notching yet another breakthrough in the President’s growing list of conservation accomplishments (with) the world’s first Backcountry Conservation Areas, or BCAs, which will be designated in the great state of Montana.”

“The United States has long been at the vanguard of conservation, and the Trump Administration has furthered these ideals more than any administration in generations, investing in public lands more than the Obama Administration and calling on Congress to fix our crumbling infrastructure through the Great American Outdoors Act,” Pendley wrote this week.

He described the BCAs as “the first in Montana, America and the world, representing a significant step forward in our efforts to mange public lands for the benefit of all. President Teddy Roosevelt used to hunt big game in these areas, and I imagine he would be proud to know that we preserved the area for the same purposes. President Trump, who pursues a conservation ethic second only to the Rough Rider himself, continues to build upon his conservation legacy.”

In a press release about the BCAs, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership President and CEO Whit Fosburgh said, "We greatly appreciate this commitment from the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management to conserve world-class hunting opportunities using the multiple-use focused Backcountry Conservation Area management tool. From Crooked Creek to Ram Mountain, the Lewistown and Missoula planning areas offer some of the finest big game habitat and hunting in North America, and the BLM has listened to the input of sportsmen and women to strengthen these plans.”

The BCAs overseen by the Missoula field office include the 6,100-acre Hoodoos BCA, the 4,539-acre Ram Mountain BCA and the 2,365-acre Wales BCA, all northeast of Missoula in the Blackfoot River drainage. Lewistown’s new areas are the Arrow Creek BCA at 12,800 acres and the Crooked Creek BCA at 93,400 acres.

The Wales and Hoodoos BCAs were previously designated as Wilderness Study Areas by the Missoula BLM field office. Crooked Creek BCA next to the Missouri Breaks National Monument is made up mostly of wilderness study areas. Maps of the new BCAs were not available at press time.

According to the BLM, backcountry conservation areas “promote public access to support wildlife-dependent recreation and hunting opportunities and facilitate long-term maintenance of big-game wildlife populations.” The BLM would restore steams, eliminate invasive species, improve fish passage, reduce the risk of wildfires and increase forage in the areas.

However, that ignores the needs of non-game animals and plants, according to Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which filed 34 pages of objections to the new plans.

“They’re going to manage the land primarily for recreational uses,” Garrity said. “The plans failed to maintain (federal) Wild and Scenic River characteristics on the Missouri River. And the bureau doesn’t have a conservation strategy for lots of different sensitive species in the plans.”

In his lawsuit, Bullock accused Pendley of ignoring public input and field office staff recommendations. In written comments to the agency on April 13, he noted the BCA designation wasn’t adequate to protect the wilderness characteristics on the Missoula-area landscapes. And the Lewistown-area proposals’ design “may not adequately safeguard important wildlife habitat and primitive recreation experiences.”

“BLM’s choice to proceed in implementing parts of the Resource Management Plans for Missoula and Lewistown without taking into consideration the governor’s serious concerns about the plans’ deficiencies shows that Pendley’s continued exercise of the director’s authority has detrimental consequences for the state of Montana,” Bullock spokeswoman Marissa Perry said about the BLM announcement.

A spokesman for the BLM said the agency would not comment on Bullock’s lawsuit until it had filed its own court response.

In the lawsuit, Bullock also alleged Pendley failed to properly cooperate with the state authorities or public.

“William Pendley was quoted in several press releases touting the resource management plan’s accomplishments,” Bullock wrote. “This pattern and practice of failing to manage public lands under principles of multiple use, fulfilling state consultation requirements and adequately protecting lands with wilderness characteristics and areas of critical environmental concern has been and continues to be implemented by Pendley, who serves unlawfully as the Bureau’s acting director and who continues to oversee the resource management plan development process while his nomination is pending,” Bullock’s lawsuit states.

“The draft plan returned by the Bureau that covers the Missoula Field Office proposed eliminating half of the 1,225 acres managed under the areas-of-critical-environmental-concern designation in its preferred alternative,” Bullock’s lawsuit alleged. “Both plans returned by the Bureau ignored the roughly 205,000 acres of lands that met the agency’s own criteria for Lands with Wilderness Characteristics.” That violates the Federal Land Management Policy Act requirement to prioritize areas of critical environmental concern, Bullock contended.

The new resource management plans and their backcountry conservation area designations are expected to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday.

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