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Home Wild Word Big Hole and Beaverhead Lease Sale an Ominous Sign for Future of WSAs
Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Aug 23 2018

Big Hole and Beaverhead Lease Sale an Ominous Sign for Future of WSAs

WSAs need real protection, not empty assurances from Daines and Gianforte

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The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently considering auctioning off leases for 76,751 acres of Montana’s public land for oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Nearly 13,000 acres of these parcels are in Beaverhead and Madison Counties, in the watersheds of the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers, two of Montana’s finest trout streams and the primary sources of Dillon’s clean drinking water. Another parcel up for lease is adjacent to the Ruby Mountains WSA, an area found suitable for wilderness designation by the BLM and known for its prime elk habitat. 

This sale gives us a glimpse into the possible future of our wilderness study areas (WSAs). 

The BLM announced the sale in July. By August 9, the agency had already released an environmental assessment and a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI). If approved, a FONSI will remove the requirement that the area undergo further analysis with an environmental impact statement. The public has been given a “streamlined” 15 days to consider the worth of leasing lands near their favorite blue-ribbon trout streams, clean water sources, and wide-open country for oil and gas development at $2 per acre. 

This lease sale, and the introduction of large-scale extractive projects, would damage blue-ribbon fisheries, risk the livelihoods of local guides and outfitters, and jeopardize the drinking water of thousands of Montanans.

But there’s even more at stake than the future of the Big Hole and Beaverhead watersheds and the people who depend on them -- our wilderness study areas (WSAs). 

WSAs are currently threatened by bills introduced by Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte seeking to eliminate protections from 800,000 acres of WSAs across the state. These two bills, introduced without a single public meeting, would constitute the largest rollback of protected public lands in Montana’s history. 
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What we’ve heard time and time again from Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte is “We don’t need to hold public meetings to decide the future of WSAs. Trust us, they won’t be developed.” This lease sale, however, confirms what we already know: public lands that lack congressional protection are vulnerable to development, and assurances that development won’t happen are worth less than the paper they’re printed on.

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At a recent invitation-only roundtable discussion, Rep. Gianforte defended his actions and suggested that the BLM and Forest Service could consult with the public on how WSAs should be managed after his legislation passes, a head-scratching position that makes as much sense as closing the gate after the cows get out. Sen. Daines repeated assertion that the 2001 Roadless Rule would prevent development (skip to 1:25) is also false - the Roadless Rule does allow oil and gas leasing, mining, and temporary road building in some cases. 

A recent article in the Montana Standard implied that stripping protections from WSAs wouldn’t open them to undue development because, in many cases, petroleum development is highly unlikely. Here’s the thing: the lease sale in Beaverhead County is due to proceed despite the fact that most of the parcels in question are rated to have “low” or “very low” potential for oil and gas development.

What we’ve heard time and time again from Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte is “We don’t need to hold public meetings to decide the future of WSAs. Trust us, they won’t be developed.” This lease sale, however, confirms what we already know: public lands that lack congressional protection are vulnerable to development, and assurances that development won’t happen are worth less than the paper they’re printed on.

Acting first and finding solutions later isn’t the way to make decisions about managing our public lands. We don’t need to strip WSA protections before deciding how these areas will be managed for future generations, for wildlife habitat, for clean water and solitude, and for the wide open country, pristine viewsheds, and outdoor heritage that define southwest Montana. 

The lesson is unmistakable: unilaterally stripping WSAs of congressional protection puts these wild places in real jeopardy, and cutting the public out of the process only opens the door to the exploitation of our most treasured wild places. Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte should refrain from making empty promises and, instead, make a good-faith effort to accept public input before any legislation is considered, not after it’s passed.

- Emily Cleveland, MWA southwest Montana field director