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Land management planning might reopen


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    MISSOULA, Montana (Missoulian) — Complex plans for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Missoula and Lewistown districts may be up for revision with the change of presidential administrations.

“Both plans have been signed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, but they have not yet been published in the Federal Register,” Missoula BLM Field Manager Erin Carey said on Monday. “I think there may be some changes, but we’re waiting to see what they might be. We expect a lot more communication coming down from leadership shortly.”

The Resource Management Plans, or RMPs, guide how the BLM manages its acres of surface land in Montana. The Lewistown District RMP has received the most notoriety, when its local advisory committee was essentially disbanded and 94% of the acreage listed as Areas of Critical Ecological Concern were opened for oil and gas leasing.

The Missoula District covers about 163,000 surface acres, mostly in the Blackfoot River Corridor and Garnet Mountains between Ovando and Drummond. It also affects about 200,000 acres of underground mineral rights. The previous RMP was more than 30 years old.

The new plan, approved on Jan. 6, includes calls for increased timber harvest in the Blackfoot Corridor near Johnsrud Park, status change for two of its three Areas of Critical Ecological Concern in the Blackfoot and Rock Creek drainages, and diminished status for about 45,000 acres of BLM land that might qualify for federal wilderness status. It also left out considerations for Wild and Scenic River status for parts of the Blackfoot and Rock Creek, according to Erin Clark, western Montana field director for the Montana Wilderness Association.

“It has set up the BLM to move back and restart some of the planning process,” Clark said of the shift from Bernhardt and the Trump Administration to the presidency of Joe Biden and his likely Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland.

Haaland’s confirmation has already drawn criticism from Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, over her support of Biden’s shift away from fossil fuel development. Sen. Jon Tester, R-Montana has announced he plans to vote for her confirmation.

The Western Energy Alliance has sued the Biden Administration over its pause on new energy leases.

“Presidents don’t have authority to ban leasing on public lands,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Alliance, wrote in a press release. “All Americans own the oil and natural gas beneath public lands, and Congress has directed them to be responsibly developed on their behalf. Drying up new leasing puts future development as well as existing projects at risk. President Biden cannot simply ignore laws in effect for over half a century.”

However, the Trump Administration also appeared to ignore those laws. Last May, a federal judge invalidated 525 square miles of energy leases in Montana for failure to study the ecological impacts. And last September, former Gov. Steve Bullock won a lawsuit overturning the Missoula and Lewistown RMPs because Trump had never authorized acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley to sign them. Bernhardt’s re-signing got around that block, but the lack of publication in the Federal Register remains an open issue.

“We think the plans, especially the Lewistown RMP, were unbalanced and favored more energy development than existing conservation and recreation values,” said Alec Underwood of the Montana Wilderness Federation. “The plan was kind of a giveaway to oil and gas in a way that would drive speculative oil and gas leasing to companies with no plans to actually develop those leases.”

Underwood said that would result in the BLM having to hold sales, conduct environmental studies and manage records for energy speculators who might never pay royalties on oil or gas they didn’t develop. That would also mean those lands would not get prioritized for wildlife habitat improvements or recreational facilities that other users might support.

“We have a booming outdoor recreation economy in the state, and lots of that is occurring on BLM lands,” Underwood said. “Our push is to have the Biden Administration look at these plans again, and see if we can have protections restored in areas that need it. That’s a great way to ensure we’re protecting fish and wildlife habitat as well as the recreational value of these areas.”

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