Black Butte

Black Butte rises about 1,200 feet above the surrounding prairie, just east of the Judith Mountains in central Montana. A large portion of the butte is managed by the BLM.

Two percent protected for wildlife and water, 98 percent open to development isn't balance.

Yet that is what the federal government is proposing in the latest version of its plan for managing 650,000 acres of public land in the Lewistown Bureau of Land Management district.

The draft environmental impact statement now out for public comment is lopsided in favoring mining and drilling over any protection for wildlands, native wildlife, or natural water sources. The current "preferred alternative" from BLM is vastly different than the plan that started in 2013 and was nearly completed in 2016. That proposal incorporated ideas from public meetings and public comments that strongly supported balance between conservation and development.

When that made-in-Montana plan was presented to BLM leadership in Washington, the Lewistown Field Office was directed to get more information. Then the political landscape changed drastically. President Donald Trump took office and Ryan Zinke was appointed secretary of Interior. They pursued policies to rev up energy production nationwide. 

The current BLM "preferred alternative" doesn't include any Areas of Critical Environmental Concern or Wilderness Study Areas for protection from development. Federal law requires the BLM to identify Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. The earlier "preferred alternative" identified 100,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas and 26,000 acres for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. Apparently, BLM leadership is no longer concerned with protection of wildlands.

The radical transformation of the Lewistown district preferred alternative under the Trump administration coincides with strikingly similar changes nationwide. The BLM has released six draft plans covering more than 20 million acres of public lands in the past four months, Ken Rait of the Pew Charitable Trust pointed out in an article published July 23. Pew's review of BLM plans in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Oregon "reveals that in each of the alternatives preferred by the agency, BLM significantly reduced protections that have been in place for decades and proposed minimal new safeguards for only a fraction of 1% of the areas. In addition, BLM proposes opening vast acres in these planning areas to energy and mineral development."

The six draft management plans include two in Montana: Lewistown and Missoula.

"For Montana's Lewistown and Missoula planning areas, BLM proposed no safeguards for lands with wilderness qualities and only one tiny 640-acre ACEC (Area of Critical Environmental Concern) designation, while 23,000 acres of such protection would be eliminated in the Lewistown planning area," Rait wrote.

Across the six planning areas, BLM proposes to eliminate 94% of ACEC that were established in prior BLM plans and to protect just 2% of the lands that the agency determined to have ACEC-qualifying values, for culture, scenery, geology, paleontology, fish and wildlife.

The Gazette has received several letters to the editor this summer arguing for protection of the superb elk and deer hunting habitat in the Lewistown BLM district. As reported previously by Gazette outdoor editor Brett French, hunting and fishing bring an estimated 160,000 sportsmen and women to the area annually and contribute about $4 million to the economy, according to a study by Headwaters Economics.

The BLM Draft Resource Management Plan isn't set in stone — yet. The public comment period is open till Aug. 15. Everyone who cares about public lands should speak up now. All who believe that both development and wildland conservation are essential must tell the BLM. This remote, ruggedly beautiful region stretching from the Canada border south to the Missouri Breaks between Havre and Glasgow shouldn't become a sacrifice to one political ideology that prioritizes oil and gas drilling above all other uses.

When adopted, the new Resource Management Plans will be applied for the next 20 years. Let's make sure that federal decision makers listen to Montanans before they finalize a decision that Montanans will have to live with for a generation.

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