By Kay Braddock
Proposed revisions being made to the area’s management of federal lands was the topic of last month’s discussion between Bureau of Land Management representatives and members of the Prairie County Land Planning Board. Several issues addressed by local officials during the hour-long February 22 meeting included concerns that area BLM land would be used to house wild horses, priorities of conservation groups outweighing the grazing needs of area ranchers and the negative economic impact large tracts of BLM land have upon those communities which encompass them.
Among the four BLM representatives fielding questions during the meeting at the Prairie County Courthouse were Miles City field manager Debbie Johnson and planning specialist Mary Bloom, project manager working on the area’s new Resource Management Plan.
The BLM is updating their RMP for the Miles City Field Office Area, which includes federal lands within the eastern third of the state, running from the Wyoming border to the Canadian border, to the eastern border of the Dakotas, with the Musselshell River essentially serving as the western border.
“It’s a big chunk to chew,” Bloom said of the significant amount of federal land within the area.
The area includes about 3 million federal surface acres and about 4 times as much subsurface minerals.
Updating the RMP began in 2005 with BLM public scoping meetings addressing issues facing the region of federally administered lands.
The RMP updating process includes a draft proposal of the new RMP, which is expected to be published later this year, with a final draft to follow in 2012. Not until a Record of Decision (ROD) is reached by the BLM will the proposed RMP be adopted. This generally takes about 6 months after the final draft, Bloom said, noting the process can take longer if needed.
Public comments within that time frame are welcome, Bloom said, adding, “We’ll consider anything at anytime prior to the ROD going out.”
The proposed RMP includes a variety of management options that can be taken on each location and resource within area BLM administered lands. In the past few months cooperating agencies within the area have been privy to those alternatives and allowed to provide comments on them.
The new RMP will replace the Big Dry RMP, which runs north of the Yellowstone River and the Powder River RMP, which runs south of the Yellowstone River. The Powder River RMP was approved in the late 1980’s while the Big Dry RMP was approved in the mid-90’s.
“What we’re doing with this, is combining the two into one RMP,” Bloom said. “We’re looking to bring some consistency into the management of the public lands.”
Major management issues within the current proposed RMP include: Fire management consistency, sage grouse habitat, oil and gas leasing and wind energy.
“We hit on just about anything you can think of, unless the resources don’t exist within our area,” Bloom said.
Wild horse issue
Pointing to the increasing numbers of wild horses contained on federal lands within western states, Prairie County Board of Commission chairman Todd Devlin recounted several instances where the issue is being hit the hardest, including areas in Montana.
“We know this is an issue. They’re running out of room,” Devlin said of the BLM and the federal lands being used to house wild horses. Adding to the problem is the fact that some owners are releasing their domestic horses among wild horse herds. “If we don’t do something, there is going to be a designation for more lands for wild horses and burros,” Devlin said.
Johnson pointed to the federal agency’s fertility control and adoption programs that are working to correct the issue.
“The numbers are still increasing,” Devlin responded, referring to the wild horse and burro population.
“Could you tell us … if someone had requested that more BLM land in this resource area be set aside for wild horses?” Prairie County Land Planning Board vice chairman Lon Reukauf asked.
“I don’t think that’s come up in any of our public scoping,” Johnson answered.
Devlin followed up by asking whether any internal requests within the agency had been received.
“No, we haven’t,” Johnson answered, noting she could only speak for the Miles City Field Office Area and not other BLM areas within the state.
Economic impact of federal lands
Pointing to historical federal documents that cover much of the duties and purposes of the BLM, Devlin questioned whether the original intent of maintaining federal lands as a “stimulator of the economy” was being met.
Statistics indicate that there is a direct correlation between those counties with aging populations receiving less money from the BLM through their Payment In Lieu of Taxes program, Devlin said. “It’s age discrimination,” he concluded.
PILT payments are made annually on tax-exempt federal lands as a way to compensate counties losing property tax revenue on those lands. Population size and the amount of federal lands within the county are used to determine PILT payments. Devlin has long argued the PILT formula is not only unfair to smaller aging counties, like Prairie County, but is also being calculated incorrectly.
“The facts are the more federal stuff we have, the poorer the county is,” Reukauf added to the conversation. He noted statistical graphs within the proposed RMP showing the amount of lands each county has and the amount of money each county receives for those lands should be placed on the same page, helping readers to make the connection of the discrepancy.
Counties with much less BLM land and larger populations are receiving more money, while counties with larger tracts of federal land are not only receiving less in PILT payments but are also experiencing a drop in population numbers and an increase in aging residents.
“I think the reason that the age discrimination exists is because the opportunity for economic growth where the federal government has a large presence is very much smaller,” Reukauf said. “So all our youth has to leave because there’s no jobs.”
Noting comments made by BLM officials at a Prairie County Grazing District meeting last year that suggested litigated issues move to the front of the line, stalling other issues from being covered by the federal agency, Reukauf questioned whether agriculturally focused groups should use similar tactics taken by some conservation groups.
“Does that mean that we need to start employing people to litigate you, so that we get the respect that other folks, who have litigated against you, get?” Reukauf asked.
“It’s an interesting thought,” Johnson replied. “I guess I had never even thought of it or looked at it from that perspective before.” She added of the RMP process, “We’re trying to do it very openly and we’re looking at being able to provide for uses out there at the same time looking for protection for resources and trying to find that balance on public lands.”
Noting grazing and mineral development are the primary resources within the BLM Miles City Field Office, Johnson said a common theme mentioned from many county officials within the region is the desire for economic development on public lands.
“It’s a challenging job and that’s why it’s important to get input from the counties, different cooperating agencies, the tribes,” Johnson said.
Pressures on grazing listed
Increased stresses, including concerns over sage grouse habitat and strict requirements implemented on the BLM’s Allotment Management Plan are making cattle grazing increasingly more difficult, members of the Land Planning Board told BLM representatives.
“The more difficult and stringent you become to work with on these AMPs, the less people want,” Reukauf said. He pointed to AMP regulations that require producers to choose days on when to move cattle to certain pastures - sometimes a year in advance.
“It’s very difficult to look at that that far and accurately predict whether it’s going to rain, what the ambient temperature in July is going to be,” Reukauf said. Adding half-jokingly, “I mean right now it doesn’t look like July is going to be too hot.” Reukauf went on, “The more very firm control you try to exert on each AMP, those people that don’t have those AMPs, then they don’t ever want to get them. It’s like don’t go there, because they’re just going to be trouble for you.”
Areas specific to Prairie County
Site specific areas within Prairie County that will be covered in the proposed RMP include: Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area, sage grouse habitat and the Off Highway Vehicle area north of Terry.
Better markings on the OHV, located north of Terry across the Yellowstone River Bridge, was suggested by county officials, who noted the recreation spot is used often.
BLM’s Areas of Critical Environmental Concern include the Powder River Depot ACEC, Big Sheep Mountain ACEC and the proposed Cedar Creek Battlefield ACEC, where evidence of a Sioux Indian War occurred. Other areas were listed as well.
The proposed draft RMP is expected to be published in September or October of this year.
Published March 9, 2011