The Trump Administration Has a Bull’s Eye On Montana’s Public Lands

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Under the Trump administration, the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management have been happily selling off public lands throughout the west. That's what happens when the fox is in charge of the hen house. In Montana, nearly half a million acres of public land have opened up to drilling leases. State leaders have an opportunity to do the right thing. Or they can acquiesce to the Trump administration and turn their back on the natural heritage of the great state of Montana.

Public land anywhere in this country is not something to protect and cherish in the Trump administration. That includes western public lands. The Western Values Project recently released a report detailing how the Trump administration is costing the state of Montana.

The Bureau of Land Management has opened up 446,777 acres of Montana’s public land for drilling since the start of the Trump administration. Montana has three national monuments that comprise over 378,000 acres of protected federal land and 377,346 acres of those national monuments have been at risk of losing their protections through executive action by President Trump. The President has already reduced the size of two monuments in Utah by claiming he has the power to do so under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Montana’s national monuments and parks are worth at least $400 million in overall economic activity.

“With former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt running Interior, the Trump administration’s rampant corruption and unchecked recklessness have reached new levels,” said Deputy Director of Western Values Project Jayson O’Neill. 

“Any member of Montana’s Congressional delegation who purports to care about public lands must act to actually protect those lands from this unprecedented level of exploitation. A good place to start would be stopping President Trump’s war on Montana’s public lands.”

The Trump administration wants to develop Montana land to benefit allies

The Trump administration tried to give 223 parcels of Montana public land to oil companies in 2018 but was stopped by the courts. However, the administration has the same plan to develop Montana land and its closest allies would be the beneficiaries of that plan. Those allies include Denbury Onshore, Cloud Peak Energy, Hecla Mining, and PetroHunt. Herbert Hunt, the owner of Petro Hunt, along with the company, has given tens of thousands of dollars to the Republican party, including to President Trump. His company won the right to drill more than 12,000 acres of Montana public land in a recent oil and gas lease.

Being friends with the Trump administration pays off if you are a fossil fuel company wanting to drill or mine on public lands. Hecla Mining Company is a hard rock mining company that donated thousands of dollars to Republican candidates. RC Resources is a subsidiary of Hecla. A federal judge in October 2019 ruled that the Trump administration cut corners in granting a mining permit to RC Resources.

Cloud Peak Energy is a major coal producer in Montana and the company also happens to be the “biggest benefactor” of a loophole by the Trump administration allowing companies to not pay full royalties, according to the Western Values Project report. The company is also a “major donor” to Republican candidates, including the former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and its Vice President of Taxation served on the Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee.

The sage grouse is the big loser in Montana

The sage grouse is an endangered bird that has millions of acres of habitat under federal management. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, removed protections for the bird. The Bureau of Land Management removed protections for 8.9 million of the 10.7 million acres of protected land for the endangered bird. The protected land is considered essential for the bird’s survival.

The BLM’s ended a policy in some areas that prioritized non-grouse habit for energy development while loosening development-free buffers around grouse mating areas. Drillers can seek waivers to put well pads and other infrastructure in areas previously off-limits in some areas. A federal compensatory mitigation mandate, which required drillers to replace habitat damaged with restored sagebrush somewhere else, is voluntary.

It’s time for Montana’s leaders to stand up to the Trump administration

It is time for Montana’s leaders to stand up to the Trump administration and hold it accountable. As the Western Values Project urges, “It is time for Montana’s elected leaders to stand up to the special interests that have infiltrated the executive branch of government under President Trump.” Their treasured public lands depend on them holding lobbyists and corrupt government officials accountable for the damage they are doing.

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