A conservation group says the Bureau of Land Management is abandoning an option that would preserve 200,000 acres in Central Montana with wilderness characteristics.
The BLM says that’s not true, and that its new draft management plan for its lands in the area will strike a balance between development and other uses.
The Lewistown Field Office’s planning area spans 750,000 acres from the Upper Missouri River Breaks to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
"That portion of central Montana just embodies some of the most inspiring area and is the most supportive of the Montana way of life that I can think of, whether it's the open spaces, the mountains, some of the breaks area," says BLM Spokesperson Al Nash.
Nash says the agency is considering four alternatives in its draft resource management plan that adhere to the agency’s multiple use and sustained yield principles.
"Certainly we need to look at conservation and recreation and uses such as grazing, or the potential for mineral development, and each of those alternatives takes a different approach and has a little different balance," he says.
The BLM’s prefered strategy for the area is to maximize opportunities to develop the region’s natural resources. It’s proposing opening 91 percent of the area to oil and gas leasing and increasing the area open for mineral materials like gravel to 99 percent.
Other alternatives would leave management as is, promote habitat or fall somewhere between.
Nash says the field office will host a series of public meetings to gather comment and feedback on its four proposed alternatives before it issues a final plan.
"It's our goal to take that input and use that to help us determine which from the elements we've studied that show up in those different alternatives make it into our final decision," he says.
Some advocacy groups say the new draft plan strips away protections outlined in a previous document that was never publicly released.
"The Department of Interior back in D.C. really profoundly altered that original version, the 2016 version, which offered pretty substantial protection for some of the last remaining intact grasslands in the United States and some of the most productive big game habitat in North America," says Aubrey Bertram, eastern Montana field director for the Montana Wilderness Association.
Bertram says MWA participated in the first round of planning in 2014 and obtained the 2016 draft document through a Freedom of Information ACT Request.
She says that document included an alternative that identified 200,000 acres, nearly a third of the planning area, as having wilderness characteristics. She says that and other protections are absent from draft plan alternatives published this week.
"The version that we see today, the priority alternative gives just the utmost priority to oil and gas and development, and eliminates almost all of the substantive conservation measure in the 2016 draft," she says.
Al Nash with the BLM says the changes Bertram sees are part of the planning process the BLM is mandated to follow under federal environmental law.
"There has not been a draft released to the public until now," he says. "There have been various iterations of drafts that we have shared with our cooperators and our staff has been working on, but this is the version that has finally reached a point where it's available for public review and comment. It is not unusual for us to have differing versions of a draft document as we move through this process until we get to one that's available for public review and comment."
Bertram calls the changes a “complete gut.”
"We can't act as though we don't have that information," she says.
The BLM is accepting public comment on the draft alternatives for the next 90 days and plans to host public meetings in the coming weeks.
Details about the plan and how to leave a comment are available here.