The Bureau of Land Management is currently considering several Resource Management Plan proposals in Montana, with one major objective ostensibly aimed at conserving sage grouse habitat to bolster population growth. However, one look at the management plans clearly shows that the stated intentions are very different from what the plans would actually accomplish. In reality, these RMPs are one of the biggest threats to private property rights and natural resource development that our state has seen in years.

The RMPs would effectively shut down BLM-managed land, as well as some privately held land, to development by eliminating grazing permits, restricting surface occupancy, as well as the use and development of roads and rail lines.

BLM has conducted a preliminary environmental impact statement in order to analyze what new conservation measures should be undertaken in the management plans where they believe sage-grouse is most in need of conservation. The BLM EIS is rife with vague and ambiguous language, resulting in inaccurate conclusions. For instance, the BLM’s economic modeling leads them to the conclusion that the proposed rules would have no impact on “very small towns dependent on agriculture.” There’s simply no credible way to believe that imposing such a dramatic change of use across hundreds of thousands of acres of land could have no impact on local economies.

The EIS completely ignores the negative effects on property rights and local economies which the new RMP guidelines would create. The aggregate effect of these multiple errors and omissions by BLM points to a much more duplicitous agenda than simply protecting sage grouse.

Modeling future outcomes is highly dependent on the accuracy of the input information used in the forecast. BLM simply has not gathered enough data to make reasonable models. In a short, 21-page passage discussing a modeling system, the words “assumptions, estimates, predictions, potentials, could be, may be, expected, approximately, and about” are used 183 times – clearly indicating the EIS does not contain enough hard data to make a justified decision about closing down thousands of acres of Montana land to existing productive uses.

The EIS calls for increasing protected, open-space for birds, but never refers to actual bird numbers. The truth is Montana has a strong sage grouse population; in fact the Montana FWP’s statistics indicate that for the past several years sage grouse populations have been relatively consistent. What’s more, sage grouse from our state are being taken to Canada, where they are conducting reintroduction efforts.

Though aimed at management practices on BLM lands, the proposed RMPs would impact private property as well. The plans are incredibly vague, but it appears that private property near public land could be restricted in the types of activities it could be used for. The provisions to restrict access on public land could leave some landowners cut off from being able to get to their property, not to mention further reducing recreational opportunities and shifting more hunters to private land.

All three BLM RMP proposals significantly restrict surface occupancy, and as a result will directly impact agriculture and energy development.

With one regulatory proposal, BLM could severely stifle Montana’s most important industries. Agriculture remains Montana’s largest economic sector and leads our exports. Oil and gas development has revitalized the eastern Montana economy and saved Montana from budget deficits. And with the nation’s largest coal reserves, Montana stands to gain mightily from increasing world demand for coal. These considerations are conspicuously absent from BLM’s EIS.

Shutting down vast areas of Montana to existing economic activity will affect all Montanans. Thousands of jobs are at risk, and Montana could lose billions of dollars in potential tax revenues and employee wages stemming from resource development.

Nothing is more important to Montana than the use of our land. As this process moves forward, I urge those on the governor’s Sage Grouse Advisory Council and all public officials, to get the facts on this issue, and encourage the BLM to re-evaluate the proposals that they have put forth so that they portray a clear and accurate picture of exactly what the impacts of the BLM RMP’s could be. The work BLM has done so far has been lacking.

Toby Dahl ranches near Roundup. He is a director of United Property Owners of Montana, an advocacy group committed to protecting and enhancing property rights and preserving traditional agriculture in Montana.

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