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Big Hole River fishing

A pair of anglers try their luck fishing from a drift boat on the Big Hole River above Thompson's Corner. The river, along with the Beaverhead, strictly regulates commercial outfitting.

Our wild spaces and public lands are our nation’s greatest treasures, where wildlife and pristine habitats can be protected for generations to come. Hunting and fishing on Montana public lands are a way of life, enjoyed by millions of people every year. However, the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers, wild and scenic places in the southwestern corner of the state, are under threat from the Department of Interior as a potential site for oil and gas drilling.

Oil and gas development create nasty direct impacts that extend beyond marred landscapes and degraded air quality. It threatens significant indirect and cumulative impacts like groundwater contamination, degraded wildlife habitat, and pollution that affects everything from livestock to drinking water. Home to a blue ribbon trout waterway for fly fishing, the potential damage to this region would be devastating.

As a long-time and avid outdoorsman who relies on Montana’s lakes and streams for my living, I am deeply concerned that the Department of Interior would consider the Big Hole River for any type of oil and gas development. Not only is this region far too delicate and vulnerable, but the likelihood of finding significant underground oil and gas resources is very low.

Our lives and livelihoods depend on places like Big Hole and Beaverhead, and they depend on a clean, healthy environment. Whether we’re talking about the traditional agriculture-based economy or the growing recreation and outdoors-based based economy, local businesses and citizens of Dillon and the surrounding areas all depend on untrammeled landscapes, healthy waterways, and clean living. So do the region’s thousands of annual visitors, and the millions of tourism dollars they spend when they visit our public lands.

Oil and gas exploration was proposed in areas northwest of Dillon, which are adjacent to Rattlesnake Creek, part of the city’s water supply. Although these leases were recently deferred, they have not been withdrawn and could pop back up at any time in the future. Backing up to National Forest lands on the Pioneer Mountains, this would significantly affect game and wildlife corridors. In areas near Glenn, oil and gas drilling would increase noise, light, and sound pollution. It would also increase the risk of wastewater or toxic substances spilling near headwaters of the Big Hole River, home of the last native population of fluvial Arctic grayling. And east of Dillon, which is adjacent to the Ruby Mountains Wilderness Study Area, a key game and wildlife habitat would be threatened as the area’s last untrammeled, wild and scenic nature preserve.

As a Montanan, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke should understand and appreciate our way of life, rather than selling us out to the highest bidder. Anyone who would risk the essence of Montana isn’t really a Montanan. You don’t have to be from Montana to be a Montanan, you just have to value and appreciate its essence. Secretary Zinke fails this fundamental test.

Zinke’s relentless efforts on behalf of oil and gas companies to open millions of acres to drilling and energy exploration, not just in Big Hole but across the country in dozens of National Parks and Monuments, violates everything the Department of Interior stands for. His role as Secretary should be as caretaker of the public lands and natural resources that belong to all of us, including our children and grandchildren who cannot speak up.

I’m opposed to any oil and gas drilling in the Big Hole and Beaverhead Valleys. They are just the wrong place for oil and gas drilling and always will be. I hope you will join me not only in sharing my outrage at this affront to our way of life, but will lend your voice and speak out against this short-sighted and dangerous proposal.

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Wade Fellin is the owner of Craig Fellin Outfitters and Big Hole Lodge.