Two draft public lands plans affecting hundreds of thousands of Montana acres appeared on Friday, and both quickly drew critics from conservationists.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Missoula and Lewistown offices’ 90-day public comment periods on their resource management plans run through Aug. 15. The Missoula plan affects 163,000 surface acres mostly in Missoula, Powell and Granite counties. The Lewistown plan covers 651,000 surface acres, but also expands energy development opportunities on another 1.2 million acres in north-central Montana.
“The Missoula district does not have oil and gas, and we don’t manage sage grouse, so we don’t have some of the more controversial issues that Lewistown has,” Western Montana District Field Manager Joe Ashor said on Friday. “We’re 90% covered in trees. The key programs we’re known for are forestry, recreation, minerals, grazing and wildlife.”
The Missoula-area plan recommends cutting 7.9 million board-feet of timber a year, up from the 1986 plan’s 7.2 million board-feet. However, Ashor said the district on average produced about 6.6 million board-feet annually.
But the plan’s preferred Alternative B has no backcountry conservation areas recommended for protection. The district has 46,389 acres proposed for that status in Alternative C, particularly in the remote Garnet Mountain Range.
It also considers just 2,500 acres as having wilderness-quality characteristics out of almost 59,000 acres it considered. By comparison, the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute and the Montana Wilderness Association inventories identified at least 16,000 acres. And it continues a 1986 recommendation to oppose federal wilderness status for two 11,000-acre wilderness study areas.
“It’s disappointing to see a plan release from the BLM that almost suggests the wilderness study areas should be released from status,” Montana Wilderness Association western field representative Erin Clark said on Friday. “That’s some of only remaining roadless areas in the Garnet Range. If they are released, if they become roaded, we move to a situation where the Garnet Range is forever altered.”
Conservation monitors in the Lewistown region were louder in their criticism, saying the new drafts diverged widely from proposals worked out in 2014. A comparison of the old and new resource management plans shows a removal of protections for all sensitive areas and an emphasis on energy development.
“It’s very different from what we expected and what was originally proposed back in 2014,” said Mark Good, MWA’s senior conservation advisor. “Most significant in the new plan, they’ve zeroed out all the land with wilderness characteristics. Initially they had proposed broad protections for about 100,000 acres. All those protections that existed were zeroed out in this plan, in the preferred alternative.”
BLM Montana communications director Al Nash acknowledged the local staff had received direction from the Washington office to change planning priorities after President Donald Trump’s administration replaced that of President Barack Obama.
“We were asked by our superiors in Washington to do some additional analysis and broaden the range of alternatives,” Nash said. “We shifted some components from preferred to other alternatives.”
Nash said while the plans’ preferred alternatives indicated the likely direction the BLM intends to go, the public can argue for reconsideration of items in the other versions. Both plans also have separate reviews of several Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. Nash also noted that BLM’s forecast of possible development in the Lewistown area “predicts a very low chance of seeing any appreciable interest in attempting to develop oil and gas in the area.”
A final decision on both plans should be made around November.