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Feb 13 2020

Celebrating success in the Pryor Mountains

Our grassroots network digs in and shows its power

Conservation is often a game of slow and steady progress. Big successes usually come only after sweat, tears, and decades of hard behind-the-scenes work. Every once a while, though, progress comes a little bit quicker, and it’s important that we savor these more immediate victories and celebrate the work of grassroots advocates - that’s you - who make it possible. 

Case in point: recently, MWA and our supporters mobilized on short notice and succeeded in convincing the Bureau of Land Management’s Billings Field Office to reexamine its plan to allow motorized e-bikes on 50 miles of primitive trails in the Pryor Mountains without studying such a decision’s potential impacts. 

Here’s how it all happened. 

MWA Springs Into Action

In mid-November, we learned that the BLM’s Billings Field Office had released an environmental assessment concerning the use of e-bikes in the ecologically sensitive Pryor Mountains. At the same time, we learned that the federally mandated public comment period was expiring in just five days. 

The trouble was that the public had not been notified about the environmental assessment or the comment period - indeed, according to the Billings Gazette, MWA “may have been the only ones to notice the new document.”

That’s because the BLM, contrary to its own precedent, neglected to make any sort of public statement concerning the release of the environmental assessment or the opening of the comment period. The agency contended that publishing the environmental assessment on its ePlanning website satisfied the request for public notice, although Billings Field Office Manager Dave LeFevre admitted that the agency could have made more of an effort to notify the public, telling the Gazette, “Looking back, I would have done it differently.”

With only five days until the expiration of the comment period, MWA and our supporters sprang into action to defend the sensitive habitat, wildlife, and wild solitude that would be negatively impacted if the BLM made the decisions to allow e-bikes on current non-motorized trails in the Pryors. 

That afternoon, we sent out a message urging supporters to submit comments on the environmental assessment before the deadline, and did you ever deliver - the stream of comments was such that the BLM decided to extend the comment period to Jan. 6, a full month later than originally planned. 

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This process is a perfect example of what can happen when we raise our voices, and I’m exceedingly proud of every one of you who made a comment supporting keeping the Pryors wild and defending the public’s right to have a say in how the BLM manages our public wildlands.

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The Gazette noted MWA’s involvement in the process, and the role that your comments played in the decision: “...the comments flowing into the BLM (were) one-sided against allowing (e-bikes). MWA issued a press release on Monday calling on its members to quickly comment before what had been a Friday deadline. Given the amount of interest the MWA outreach generated, LeFevre decided to extend the comment period to Jan. 6.”

Wildlands Supporters Go Public

That’s a clear example of the power of grassroots organizing, but the story doesn’t end there. In January, inspired by the outpouring of support for keeping the Pryors wild, MWA Eastern Wildlands Chapter President Roger Otstot and Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society board members Deb and Steve Regele penned an editorial in the Gazette entitled “E-bikes threaten the fragile Pryor Mountains ecosystem.” In the article, they criticized the BLM’s failure to perform any trail-by-trail analysis of the impact e-bikes would have on wildlife, solitude, trail quality, user experience, and the spread of noxious and invasive weeds. 

“The environmental assessment,” they wrote, “made no effort to explore the trail-by-trail consequences of allowing e-bikes, instead applying unscientific one-size-fits-all decisions to varied and sensitive areas, a decision that is at best careless and at worst dangerously negligent.”

The BLM Changes Course

On Jan. 26, less than two months after MWA first discovered the environmental assessment and our grassroots supporters flooded the BLM with comments, the Billings Field Office announced that it was reexamining trails in the Pryors with an eye towards determining what uses were appropriate for specific trails. The agency brought a cadre of management specialists, and a reporter from the Gazette, into the Pryors to make detailed observations and begin the process of making informed on-the-ground decisions about how it should manage these sensitive areas.

“We’ll make a more specific proposal for trails before we make a decision,” said Dave LeFevre, echoing the recommendations that MWA and our supporters made. He also noted that the agency had received over 130 comments, nearly all from MWA supporters, of which “a high percentage had to do with non-motorized trails.” 

It will be some time until we know what the BLM proposes for particular trails in the Pryors, but by agreeing that it needs to make trail-by-trail management decisions, the agency has already begun acting on MWA’s recommendations. It’s inspiring to see the impact that our supporters can have, and successes like this reinforce just how much we can do with a passionate, motivated, and active network of grassroots supporters like you. Forces at the highest levels of government are actively striving to reduce public input and gut our public processes, and it is more important than ever to speak up. This process is a perfect example of what can happen when we raise our voices, and I’m exceedingly proud of every one of you who made a comment supporting keeping the Pryors wild and defending the public’s right to have a say in how the BLM manages our public wildlands. 

Thank you for all that you do to protect our wild places, and I hope our success in the Pryors inspires you to keep standing up to protect Montana’s wild public lands.

Want to do your part to hold our land-management agencies accountable to Montanans? Become a member today and we'll make sure you know about every opportunity to speak up and defend our wild places

 

Aubrey Bertram
Eastern Montana Field Director

Aubrey works with communities to protect eastern Montana’s prairies, badlands, and island mountain ranges. She spends her time skiing, hiking, running, volunteering, and enjoying the company of her two cats and two dogs.