This July the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) posted an obscure notice on its website that it will lease more than 12,000 acres of public land in the Beaverhead and Big Hole watersheds for oil and gas development. Many of the parcels up for potential eBay-style auction are located on public lands near important headwaters, such as areas outside the small community of Glen, or the parcels upstream from the city of Dillon directly off Rattlesnake Creek. These public lands would be auctioned off this December.
Let’s be clear what proposed oil and gas leases on public lands mean for the Big Hole and Beaverhead watersheds:
The BLM, under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s leadership, wants to allow fracking and oil derricks, wastewater ponds and who knows what other type of industrial machinery and operations nearly adjacent to the treasured Big Hole River and its world-class blue-ribbon fishery, alongside Rattlesnake Creek and the City of Dillon’s drinking water supply, and even in prime deer and elk habitat on the backside of the Ruby Mountain Range.
Oil and gas leasing, allowed under antiquated mineral laws nearly a hundred years old, means that while federal authority over public lands is not transferred to industrial interests, the power of public oversight — that which puts the “public” in public lands — is. Limiting public participation on public lands decisions is one of several key leadership failures of Secretary Zinke. Through a series of smarmy moves by this administration, public comment on oil and gas leases has been slashed to only 10 days, while efforts to offset potential degradation and impacts through mitigation have been reduced from mandatory, to voluntary, letting fat cat industry off the hook by being allowed to choose whether or not to clean up their wastes.
We, the public, have the right to not only use public lands, but to ensure our government agencies take good care of shared public trust resources, from broad swaths of forests and grasslands to habitat and game species, to headwater trout streams and fisheries.
However, once public lands are leased for development, companies own the right to extract oil, gas or other resources for the term of the leases, typically 10 years or more without development and indefinitely after production begins. Once this happens the public has few opportunities to influence how those operations occur, or to stop the degradation and pollution that inevitably.
Facts don’t lie: oil and gas development creates nasty direct impacts such as marred landscapes and degraded air quality, and threatens significant indirect and cumulative impacts such as groundwater contamination, degraded wildlife habitat and polluted water that affects everything from livestock to your drinking water.
The Big Hole and Beaverhead depend on a clean, healthy environment. Whether we’re talking about the traditional agriculture-based economy or the growing recreation and outdoors-based based economy, local businesses and citizens of Dillon and the surrounding areas all depend on untrammeled landscapes, healthy waterways, and clean living. So too do the region’s thousands of annual visitors and their millions of tourism dollars depend on clean, healthy public lands as well.
Zinke and the BLM’s proposal to lease our public lands in the Big Hole and Beaverhead for oil and gas development threatens to risk this important region’s golden goose for the sake of out-of-state, corporate profits and is simply unacceptable.
Some places are too special, too unique, and too important to risk for profit. We should all stand united in telling Montana’s own Secretary Zinke: public lands in the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Montana’s headwaters are no place for industrial oil and gas development.