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Is the sage grouse more important than energy independence?


When did the sage grouse become a national priority surpassing energy independence, and does this fowl really require millions of acres of energy-rich land to survive?

Those are the obvious questions that arise when reading the Bureau of Land Management’s recent 812-page Resource Management Plan for the Hi-Line.

The document, released this spring and currently out for public comment, is a good example of the unfortunate trend toward declaring Montana off-limits to development. It contains a few bright points, but mostly the plan deprives the Hi Line of prospects for natural gas, oil, and wind development on hundreds of thousands of acres that have a chance at taking off — but only if they are on the table for developers.

The magnitude of land and mineral rights in the Hi Line that are owned by the federal government is often shocking to outsiders. Even for those who live along the Hi-Line, the numbers deserve a recounting. A whopping 53 percent of Phillips County’s subsurface minerals are controlled by the BLM. In Valley County, the number is 43 percent. In Blaine and Toole counties, federal custodians’ control is in the double digit percentages. These are the counties in our state with some of the most significant long-term prospects for energy development.

How the federal government makes use (or doesn’t make use) of the land it controls can seal the fate of many Hi-Line communities. If this resource management plan is adopted, I worry that the lands the BLM declares off-limits to development will be off-limits forever. It is, after all, very hard to un-ring the bell once land has been designated “protected.”

The BLM’s plan proposes five alternatives, ranging from the status quo to the “preferred alternative” that the agency is proposing to adopt. For oil and gas leasing, the amount of land off-limits to surface occupancy, making drilling virtually impossible, more than quintuples, from around 300,000 acres under the current management practice to more than 1.7 million acres under the preferred alternative.

More than 150,000 acres would be completely closed to development, and another 1.4 million acres would be subject to seasonal or other limitations, mainly to protect the sage grouse. Only about 160,000 acres, or 4.5 percent of the nearly 3.5 million acre federal estate, would be open to drilling activity under business-as-usual leasing practices.

The plan doesn’t just restrict fossil fuels, either. Renewables actually fare worse than oil and gas under the proposed plan. While 92 percent of BLM land on the Hi-Line is designated an “open area” to wind development, that number would decrease to a mere 1 percent under the preferred alternative. (36 percent of the land would be designated an “avoidance area” while the remaining 62 percent would be closed completely.)

The Hi Line offers attractive natural gas and oil reserves. It also has one of the most energetic wind regimes in the nation. While low gas prices and a lack of pipeline and transmission infrastructure have made it hard for that development to pencil out in recent years, we may be staring at a very different reality a decade from now.

How often do we hear the refrain from politicians that we need to wean America off of foreign sources of energy? If we’re serious about that policy, a necessary corollary is to keep open avenues of development for oil, gas, wind, everything in our own backyard. The draft resource management plan for the Hi-Line does not achieve that basic mission.

The public has until June 20 to comment on the plan, which you can find online at http://www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/malta_field_office/rmp.html. To submit a comment, you can email the BLM at: BLM_MT_HiLine_RMP@blm.gov or by mail through the BLM’s Havre office, 3990 Highway 2 West, Havre, MT 59501.

I encourage you to make your voice heard, and to assert the basic principle that BLM land should be productive and useful, with its benefits to the Montanans who live nearby.

(Travis Kavulla, Republican from Great Falls, is a commissioner on the Montana Public Service Commission, which regulates electric, natural gas, pipeline and water utilities. He represents 19 counties, including the Hi Line.)


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