Montana counties fearful of monument designation
It’s not that he doesn’t trust his local BLM field manager. In fact, the two “Todds” have a good working relationship.
Todd Devlin, rancher/farmer, and county commissioner thinks a recent directive from the Bureau of Land Management administration should raise a red flag for rural folks across the country.
Todd Yeager, Field Manager for the Miles City Field Office, said that the BLM’s “6310 Manual” issued two years ago, gives direction to folks like him in BLM offices across the country, to inventory the BLM land in their districts, particularly to look for “wilderness characteristics.”
Devlin’s beef is that a similar inventory process was conducted under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act or FLPMA, in 1976, and was to conclude 15 years later, in 1991.
“The FLPMA gives the BLM their walking orders. It is their Bible,” said Devlin, of Terry, Montana, who serves on the Prairie County Commission and is First Vice president of the Montana Association of Counties and is a National Association of Counties public lands steering committee member.
Section 603 of that act instructed that, in accordance with the Wilderness Act (of 1964), the Secretary (of the Interior) would review roadless areas of 5,000 acres or more and roadless islands of public lands, identified by the inventory required in the same act. The Secretary was further instructed to suggest to the President any recommendations for Wilderness protection. The section required the action to be done within 15 years.
“FLPMA said they had 15 years. There was an amendment that restricted Alaska from the time frame. If there wasn’t a real time limit, they wouldn’t have needed to add that amendment to exempt Alaska,” Devlin said.
“This is illegal,” Devlin said of the second inventory directive.
Devlin fears that the re-inventorying of BLM lands will result in fodder for an Antiquities Act “monument” designation in Montana, and maybe elsewhere, by President Obama. “There is no other reason to catalog it again,” Devlin said. Federal monuments come with restricted land use, which is already a complaint ranchers have regarding BLM land in some areas.
Devlin filed a formal protest to the BLM and received a two-paragraph dismissal of his opposition. He then filed an appeal with the Department of Interior’s Board of Land Appeals. “They dismiss it and say they can’t hear it in the court system because it’s not an ‘action’ on land management, it’s only an internal directive. There are no impacts that can be shown – economic, environmental, and no public input was sought on the directive.
“You have an internal directive that you can’t protest or appeal or sue because there are ‘no impacts,’” said Devlin. He and other county commissioners determined that a political battle in the media was the only resort.
The state association of county commissions recently voted nearly unanimously – two out of 56 counties voted “no” – to reach out to media in an effort to alert Montanans of their concerns over the potential for more monument designations under the Antiquities Act.
The Antiquities Act is a law that allows the president of the United States to designate naturally, culturally and historically significant lands as national monuments. Sixteen out of the last 18 presidents have used the law since its enactment in 1906, according to the Wilderness Society. Those lands inventoried as potential Wilderness would likely be a perfect candidate for monument designation, said Devlin. While FLPMA called for parcels of land consisting of 5,000 acres or more to be cataloged, the newer directive doesn’t include a minimum number of acres.
Five years ago, then BLM director Bob Abbey addressed a crowd of 1,500 or more ranchers and other federal lands users in Malta, Montana, to announce that, contrary to federal land users’ concerns, a national monument would not be declared in Montana using the Antiquities Act.
“After a lot of protest they pulled the Wildlands Initiative that time. But this is exactly the same thing, just named something different,” said Devlin.
Yeager said about 83,000 of the approximately 2.75 million acres he oversees are considered “Wilderness Study Areas.” The WSAs might possibly qualify as Wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act, but have never been formally designated. But because they could potentially qualify, they are required to be managed as Wilderness, which restricts some management practices on the land like water development, weed control and aerial predator control.
Devlin said he has a letter from a local BLM office explaining that $28,000 was spent poisoning noxious weeds on 140 acres in a WSA because modern spraying techniques can’t be employed.
In addition to the WSA’s, Yeager has under his management 5,002 acres of lands managed as those with Wilderness characteristics.
Under the National Wilderness Preservation system, 110 million acres are being “protected” nationwide. While livestock grazing was “grandfathered” in with the Wilderness Act, it continues to be a contentious issue with anti-grazing activists. It is technically allowed, but practical livestock grazing on Wilderness areas can be made impossible if water can’t be kept clean or improved, fences can’t be managed and other activities like placing mineral our for livestock is prohibited.
About 23,000 acres under his watch have “wilderness characteristics” but are being managed for multiple uses – either for wildlife or natural resource use such as oil or gas, said Yeager.
Yeager said in an unprecedented move, two Wilderness Study Areas were “released” by Congress, which means his office was directed to return the areas to multiple use.
His staff is not investigating every acre of land to find exponentially more possible Wilderness Areas, but they could discover some that qualify, Yeager said.
While he doesn’t expect the inventorying to result in the President declaring any new monuments in Montana, he can’t rule out the possibility.
“I’ve heard nothing of any other type of designation out there. We’re not inventorying in a methodology that requires reporting to congress,” he said.
“I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t see anything in my sight that would suggest a monumental designation but I understand Todd’s concerns,” said Yeager who grew up on a ranch near Newcastle, Wyoming and earned a masters degree in range management from the University of Wyoming.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News