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June 02, 2011 8:51 am

Commissioners, industry push against new land restrictions

Written by CJ Baker

New protections for wildlife corridors and wintering grounds and scenic areas are unnecessary, Park County commissioners, oil and gas representatives and some citizens said at a Tuesday night meeting discussing the Bureau of Land Management’s draft plan for managing public lands in the Big Horn Basin.

The bureau’s preferred plan, now open for public comment, would generally add new restrictions to some of the basin’s 3.2 million acres of federally-managed land and 4.2 million acres of federal mineral estate, though other conditions would be eased. The Resource Management Plan would guide use of the land for 15 to 20 years.

The Big Horn Basin’s four commissions and six conservation districts have been holding public meetings on the proposed plan to share their thoughts on the proposed plan and to encourage people to comment.

Park County commissioners Loren Grosskopf, Joe Tilden and Tim French generally expressed concern that the BLM is considering any new restrictions.

“I think we have proven that we can take care of the land. And I guess it defies my intuition ... why we need more restrictions,” said Grosskopf.

“What’s frustrating to me is you folks don’t get any credit for 100 years of good work out here,” said French to an audience of about 50 people at the Park County Fairgrounds. He said the only reason that the BLM identified some additional 571,000 acres as having wilderness characteristics “is because of good stewardship.”

Staff from the county’s enviromental consultant, Ecosystem Research Group of Missoula, Mont., gave a PowerPoint presentation at the outset of the meeting. It was intended as a snapshot of the BLM’s preferred alternative (contained in a roughly 1,800-page BLM document) and how it would change things from how they’re managed today in Park County. The changes would include limiting travel on more than 78,000 acres to designated trails instead of to all existing roads, protecting 329,000 as a buffer for historic trails and closing more than 68,000 acres to mineral leasing in the Absaroka-Beartooth front. The importance of oil and gas development was a prominent theme in ERG’s presentation.

A couple pictures in the presentation showed pictures of deer and elk near oil and gas pump jacks to illustrate the potential for compatibility between development and wildlife.

That argument was later reiterated by Bob Whisonant, a Marathon Oil manager in Cody, during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“You don’t have to chose (between development and protection),” he said, adding later, “I really do believe that it’s proven that oil and gas can co-exist with our special places, our special lands and our wildlife corridors and all of that in total.”

Hilary Eisen, a Cody representative of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, offered a lone different take, saying her environmental organization does not believe all places can have both development and wildlife protection.

For example, while supporting continued development in existing oil and gas fields, the coalition is pushing for all of the Absaroka-Beartooth Front to be set off limits to development — a proposal more protective than the BLM’s preferred plan.

“We feel it would be preferred and ideal for the BLM to manage that (front) for wildlife,” she said, citing its use as winter range.

Powell City Councilman Jim Hillberry, who said he was not speaking for the city, later said it was unnecessary to close the Absaroka Front to development.

“The main thing is, we have to produce revenues for our county and our cities and our state,” said Hillberry.

As noted in the presentation and in handouts provided at the meeting, the oil and gas industry is a primary source of revenue for local governments.

If development is hampered, “as a CPA, I’m really nervous — where’s that (government) revenue going to come from?” said Grosskopf.

“Oil and gas pays the bills,” said Commissioner Tilden.

ERG and oil and gas representatives said the BLM has underestimated the Big Horn Basin’s potential for future oil and gas development, basing their projected levels of development on conventional technology. They said new technology for resource- and stratographic-based plays, such as horizontal drilling, can free up deposits previously too expensive and difficult to reach.

Outside of Eisen, all of the eight public commenters at the meeting were critical of any new restrictions on BLM-managed land.

Lovell-area resident Ron Ferguson expressed concern about road travel being limited, while Scott Brown, a Big Horn County grazing permittee, said he thought the BLM was cutting his access.

‘This is something we all need to fight for, because it’s going to affect main street,” Brown said, adding, “It’s not just the farmers and the ranchers and the oil people, it’s going to affect all of us.”

Tom Fitzsimmons of Cody, a petroleum engineer with Legacy Reserves, also expressed concern — echoed by a couple of commenters — that the BLM’s proposed plan and increased protections would lead to more employees.

“That means we have bigger government coming our way, and at what point at the grassroots level do we resist bigger government?” Fitzsimmons asked.

Speaking to unspecified commissioners who he’s heard say they want “balance,” Fitzsimmons asked, “was there imbalance with the current plan? And if so, why didn’t we hear that when you were running for election? Why were you blind to the imbalance if you are seeking balance?”

Commissioner Dave Burke seemed to advocate for balance at the meeting. He said people don’t move to Park County to live among oil wells, but added that development provides the jobs and funding that keeps the local economies and governments running.

“We also need to be assured that special places are protected,” Burke said, saying he’s not opposed to some of the BLM’s proposed new protections for the Bald Ridge, Sheep Mountain and Carter Mountain areas.

“Areas like that, I think it needs to be protected from development. But there’s 90 percent of the county (still) out there,” Burke said.

“Let’s don’t beat up all the lands in Park County. We have some special places we need to conserve for our grandchildren and for ourselves when we’re out there hunting and fishing and riding our motorcycle” or whatever we’re doing, Burke said, adding, “Multiple use does not mean all uses at all places.”

Though she didn’t speak up when other commenters favored development, attendee Renee Tafoya of Powell told the Tribune after the meeting that she agrees some special places should be protected.

“I don’t want to see the Big Horn Basin industrialized,” Tafoya said.

Commissioners encouraged residents to submit comments on the BLM’s draft Resource Management Plan. More information, including the document and a comment form, is available at www.tinyurl.com/BLMRMP.

2 comments

  • Comment Link June 02, 2011 3:07 pm posted by loveourcountry

    Thank You Commissioner for putting on this public forum. This was one time monies spent for consultants to get through this massive bill was well spent. People throughout the Big Horn Basin had better educate themselves on the BLM plans. This is going to change the rules for up to the next 20 years. It seems to be more focused on limiting useage of everything from cars to oil than anything else.

  • Comment Link June 06, 2011 1:39 pm posted by Absaroka Hunter

    These meetings are purely dog-and-pony shows conducted by the commissioners, who have a clear agenda. The special interests commenting are all about whose ox is getting gored — not what's in the best interest of the county or the majority of its citizens. A lot of short-sighted folks out there.

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