Central Montana Public Lands Plan Should Balance Conservation and Development

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Central Montana Public Lands Plan Should Balance Conservation and Development
An east-west ridge through Musselshell Breaks divides the rugged southern area from the prairielike region to the north.
Tony Bynum

For the first time in more than 20 years, the Bureau of Land Management’s Lewistown Field Office is updating the resource management plan (RMP) that will guide the future of public lands in that part of central Montana. The plan will determine which areas will be conserved for their natural value or their recreational appeal—for example for backcountry hunters and hikers—and which will be available for development, including mining and conventional energy projects.

On May 17, the BLM released a draft plan that would roll back existing conservation measures in the area rather than balancing protection and development on these wild roadless landscapes. In its public scoping documents, the BLM identified 200,000 acres of undeveloped lands under the Lewiston office’s oversight as having wilderness characteristics: They are pristine in nature and provide opportunities for solitude, primitive hunting, and outdoor recreation.

Mountains meet prairie in the Musselshell Breaks of central Montana, which could be opened to development under a forthcoming federal plan.
Tony Bynum

The Pew Charitable Trusts and local organizations, including the Montana Wilderness Association and Montana Wildlife Federation, conducted an inventory of the 750,000 acres overseen by the Lewistown Field Office for their wilderness characteristics and identified the same 200,000 acres as meriting protection. The lands are generally unprotected regions that have the same qualities as formal wilderness areas but have not been designated by Congress.  They include the Chain Buttes, Spear Coulee, Dovetail, and Fort Musselshell units—wild and remote public lands deserving of management that keeps them as they are: accessible to hunters, hikers, backpackers, and others who enjoy these places in low-impact ways. 

And yet the agency is not recommending protection for a single acre in the area. Additionally, the course that the BLM says it’s most likely to take—called the preferred alternative in the draft RMP—eliminates all “areas of critical environmental concern” (ACECs), which are protected for their wildlife, cultural, scenic, and geological values. The Lewistown planning area currently includes eight ACECs consisting of 23,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front, Judith Mountains, Square Butte, and Blacktail Creek.

A hunter looks west across Crooked Creek toward the Judith Mountains in the Musselshell area of Montana. The gray brush is the result of an old wildfire.
Tony Bynum

The Lewistown Field Office oversees lands that are rich in the natural and human history of the West. The area is bordered on the north by the nearly 500,000 acres of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and on the northeast by the approximately million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The area contains swaths of prairie east of Great Falls that increase in ruggedness as they transform to rough and craggy breaks approaching the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark described that harsh landscape as “the deserts of America,” and pioneer fur traders commonly referred to this section of the Missouri as the badlands. One of the last places to be settled in the West, this sparsely populated section of the country remains nearly as remote and wild as it was over 200 years ago.

The Lewistown district is also home to some of the country’s most productive habitat for elk, deer, and bighorn sheep, offering one of the most sought-after big-game hunting experiences in the United States. Montana’s second-largest elk herd and some of the West’s biggest trophy bulls reside here. According to a 2016 study by Headwater Economics, big-game hunting contributed nearly $4 million in spending in four hunting areas within the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office boundary—nearly $3.8 million of which came from elk hunting. The economic value of these public lands illustrates how the BLM’s management decisions can have a lasting impact not just on the landscape but on local economies, many of which depend on the outdoor recreation opportunities that healthy public lands offer.

The view from above Dovetail Creek shows the wilderness quality of central Montana’s buttes, breaks, badlands, and prairie. The creek empties to the Musselshell River, which feeds into the Missouri River.
Mark Good

Although the draft RMP is disappointing, Pew and its local and national partners will continue encouraging the BLM in its final plan to safeguard the 200,000 acres that merit protection, along with the lands deserving ACEC designation.

The agency will accept public comments on the RMP until Aug. 15.

For more information about the Lewistown management plan, including how to comment, click here.

Ken Rait is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. Public Lands and Rivers Conservation program.

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