The Bureau of Land Management is taking comments on a draft resource management plan (RMP) for the 2.4 million acres of public land and 4.2 million acres of federal minerals it manages in the HiLine District, which stretches from the Rockies to North Dakota, and from the Canadian border to south of U.S. 2 and to the Missouri River.
An updated plan was due, since the district is operating with plans that are more than 25 years old. The pressures of oil and gas development, threats to the greater sage-grouse, increased conflicts between land use and wildlife habitat and increased demand for recreational use of public lands are just some of the reasons for a revised plan.
An informational open house was held in Glasgow on Monday evening, where staff members had maps, fact sheets and explanations of the five proposed alternative plans for managing the land, water, vegetation, wildlife, oil and gas, vehicle use, cultural resources and many other aspects of this vast landscape.
More meetings will be held this week in Malta, Havre, Chester and Great Falls.
The main news for ranchers is that no grazing rights would be lost under the BLM’s preferred alternative. Ninety-eight percent of the total area would be open to livestock grazing. More land has been added to the inventory of lands that possess wilderness characteristics, with 26 areas, totaling 386,000 acres, identified as meeting the criteria. These areas must be roadless areas of at least 5,000 acres with sufficient naturalness and outstanding opportunities for either solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation. Valley County is notable for its land that qualifies for solitary naturalness, as well as providing outstanding habitat for sage-grouse, mountain plover and grassland birds.
The 90-day period to send written comment ends June 20. After analyzing the comment, the BLM will refine their draft RMP into a proposed RMP by next summer and have another round of public comment. This all started in 2006, with extensive public scoping and working with many agencies. Brian Hockett, the planning and environmental coordinator for the HiLine District, said at least 15 cooperating agencies helped develop the five alternatives, including counties, grazing districts, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The full RMP/EIS document runs to more than 1,300 pages and is available online at http://www.blm/mt, along with information on how to comment.
According to the website, major items addressed in the draft RMP/EIS include developing consistent oil and gas lease stipulations, management prescriptions for lands with wilderness characteristics, and addressing how to strengthen conservation of greater sage-grouse and grassland bird habitat, while staying consistent with national BLM policies.
Hockett described Alternative B as emphasizing conservation, Alternative D as favoring resource development and Alternative E, the BLM’s preferred alternative, as leaning toward no surface occupancy, with a very low potential for future oil and gas development.
Under Alternative E, two areas totaling 11,000 acres would be managed to protect wilderness characteristics over other priorities. One of these areas is in south Valley County near the Phillips County line, in the Timber Creek, Sage Creek and Square Creek area. Grazing and current uses could continue.
Mark Good, with the Montana Wilderness Association, said that with all the land under consideration, this was not too much to keep wild.
To the six existing proposed Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, including Bitter Creek in north Valley County and Mountain Plover in the middle of south Valley County, four new proposed ACECs would be added, including Frenchman, Malta Geological, Zortman/Landusky and Woody Island in Phillips County.
Restriction of vehicle travel is a management tool that would be used to maintain the wilderness characteristics of these areas. No mineral leasing or wind farms would be allowed.
“There are not many big changes,” said Kathy Tribby, the outdoor recreation planner for the district. “It’s what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, so these areas still have those characteristics.”