Few landscapes in the nation embody the spirit of the American West more than the winding Big Hole River, which cuts the Bitterroot and Pioneer Mountains at the valley. The scenic basin has borne the boot-prints of some of our country’s greatest pioneers, like Roosevelt.
It was on this landscape where I took my first antelope with a rifle several years ago, on a crisp October morning. In many ways, the area in and around the upper Big Hole watershed has maintained the uncharted character of days past and still hosts some of the best hunting and angling opportunities North America has to offer. So why is it that our current administration is contemplating opening up the area to extractive energy development?
The Bureau of Land Management recently announced it is considering leasing thousands of acres, in near proximity to the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, for oil and gas development while circumventing previous standards of public input and environmental review. The roughly 12,500 acres under consideration for lease are located in Madison and Beaverhead counties, and will go on the auction block for a minimum of $2/acre.
What makes this particular lease sale all the more bewildering is the fact that development potential, or the likelihood of producing good quality and high quantity mineral deposits is “low” to “very low,” according to the BLM. When returns on development come at the cost of disrupting an exceptionally high-quality landscape, world-class guide and outfitter operations, and depressing the local outdoor recreation economy, I have to ask what tips the scale?
I can understand the interest in growing our rural counties’ tax base, however development of this kind has to be weighed against our outdoor recreation economy – not to mention the values that make Montana “The Last Best Place.”
A recent economic report from the Outdoor Industry Association found that outdoor recreation generates $7.1 billion annually in consumer spending in Montana, supports 71,000 jobs across the state which generate $2.2 billion in wages and salaries and produces $286 million annually in state and local tax revenue. Further, the U.S. Census reports that over 950,000 people hunt, fish or watch wildlife in Montana each year, spending over $1.1 billion on wildlife-related recreation. All of this is, of course, dependent upon preserving the places that provide the opportunity – like the Big Hole and Beaverhead valleys.
What has myself and many others most concerned about the potential leasing is the reckless abandonment of a thorough environmental review and limited opportunity for public input. Traditionally, following a BLM announcement of a potential lease sale the public is offered between 30-60 days to submit comments. In the case of this lease sale, the BLM limited that opportunity to only ten days. Moreover, public input on the BLM’s finding of “no significant impact” to some of the proposed lease areas was limited to only fifteen days.
Montana’s outdoors are woven into the fabric of its character as much as the fly-rod and lever-action rifle, and I for one intend to stand up for them. Our public lands are a birthright that were bestowed upon us by our predecessors with the understanding that we would be responsible and stalwart caretakers of the landscape. It is now our responsibility to ensure that the lands we have enjoyed will be gifted to our children, improved rather than diminished in quality. I ask that you join me in the protection of the most special territories in “The Last Best Place.”
Alec Underwood is western field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation.