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How fossil-fueled politics undermined a backcountry compromise

William Perry Pendley’s illegal stint as agency head undoes a first-of-its-kind land designation in Montana.

In central Montana, sagebrush-covered hills roll gently down toward Arrow Creek before dropping off in dramatic cliffs where the creek joins the Missouri River. This Bureau of Land Management land, near the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, is prime habitat for deer, elk and game birds. Arrow Creek’s remote location and its renown as a hunting destination made it an ideal candidate to debut a new land-management designation: the backcountry conservation area.

Backcountry conservation areas were conceived as a compromise between giving land the full protections — and restrictions — of a designated wilderness area, and offering no protections at all: a way to conserve big game wildlife while still supporting recreational access.

Mule deer swim across the Missouri River in the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monum. Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo

In July 2020, the BLM designated the nation’s first backcountry conservation areas in Montana. But the agency did not outlaw oil and gas drilling within their boundaries — and state officials and some public-lands advocates say that could make the designation meaningless. “The idea is a really good idea, but the backcountry conservation areas we got are just words on a paper,” said Aubrey Bertram, eastern Montana field director for the Montana Wilderness Association.

Now, even the watered-down version of the Montana designations has been thrown out. In October, Federal District Court Judge Brian Morris ruled that the management plans establishing the Montana backcountry conservation areas were invalid because William Perry Pendley, the de facto head of the BLM, was unlawfully filling that position. The ruling, and the lawsuit that led to it, underline how — and why — state officials, conservationists and members of the public have lost trust in an agency that’s undone land protections and scrapped previous compromises over the past four years.

See the rest of the story here: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.12/north-public-lands-how-fossil-fueled-politics-undermined-a-backcountry-compromise

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington.

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