Stillwater County Beartooth Zone: The Commissioners’ position is not only illegal, it is completely undemocratic

The Stillwater County Commissioners seem dead set on fighting County taxpayers in court to protect the rights of outsiders. No county in the history of Montana has ever taken their position, it is untested in court, and it is completely undemocratic and unfair.

To see how undemocratic the Commissioners’ position is, let’s look at two actual properties in the proposed zone. Names have been changed, but these properties actually exist.

Bill’s ranch counts as one property

Property 1: Bill has lived in Fishtail all his life. His great grandfather homesteaded his 1500 acre ranch beginning in 1910, and his family has lived there ever since. The ranch passed down to Bill and his wife Margaret when his dad died in 1978, and they have willed it to their daughter to make sure it stays in the family. The family has kept the minerals intact for the entire period they have owned the ranch, so Bill has the sole mineral rights.

Bill is not opposed to allowing drilling on his property. The royalties would be welcome, but he is concerned about the possibility of permanent damage. He knows that spills are a natural part of drilling — he found out from the Montana Board of Oil and Gas that there were 91 incidents in Montana in 2016 alone. Toxic spills could harm his livestock, permanently damage his water supply, and render portions of his property unusable.

He signed the zoning petition to make sure that regulations are put in place to require operators to follow industry best practices for water, soil, and air testing. If that happens, he’d be willing to consider leasing his land. If not, he figures it’s just not worth the risk.

According to the standards the Stillwater Commissioners have put in place, Bill’s ranch counts as one property.

The Jensens’ vacation cabin counts as 33 properties

Property 2: The Jensen family lives in Billings. They bought a vacation cabin on a ½ acre plot of land on the Stillwater in Nye in 2012. They love to visit, but it’s hard to get there more than a couple of times every summer.

They don’t know much about oil drilling, but they signed the petition because they are concerned that truck traffic on Stillwater River Road will tear up the dirt and make it unusable.

They have read that a single well can require 400-800 or more truck trips, and wells are frequently grouped together, so it’s easy to imagine serious damage to a dirt road. They know that the County would have to pay for that damage, and remember how it took the Commissioners over two years to scrape together the budget to clean up a rock slide that closed the road. Zone regulations would require operators to pay for any infrastructure damage they cause.

Before and after — what fracking in winter weather did to a dirt road in West Virginia

But here’s the undemocratic part. The Jensens’ mineral rights were severed from their surface rights decades ago. They are now split among 32 owners. According to the Commissioners’ policy, the Jensens’ cabin counts as 33 properties compared to Bill’s one property!

No matter how County Attorney Nancy Rohde and the Commissioners try to spin it, there is no principle of law or justice in the United States of America in which the Jensens’ half-acre vacation cabin should have 33 times the voice of Bill’s 1500-acre ranch. Bill’s family will probably be here for another hundred years, and will have to deal with the consequences of unregulated drilling. The Commissioners think Bill’s opinion should count 3% as much as a bunch of speculators holding lottery tickets for a few hundred dollars worth of oil royalties that will probably never amount to anything.

Feel free to let the Commissioners know how you feel about this nonsense.
Dennis Shupak, Commissioner, Chair (District 1)
Term expires: 2020
Photo: Alpine Images

Mark Crago, Commissioner (District 2)
Term expires: 2022
Photo: Marlo Pronovost, Stillwater County News

Maureen Davey, Commissioner (District 3)
Term Expires: 2018
Photo: Alpine Images

County Attorney Nancy Rohde
Term expires: 2018


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Beartooth Front zone update: Stillwater Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries; support unknown outsiders

A portion of this post will appear in the Opinion section of the Stillwater County News on Thursday, February 8.

By rejecting a petition of over 550 landowners to establish the Beartooth Front Zoning District, the Stillwater Commissioners this week, after three years of inaction, delays, and excuses, have decided to turn their backs on the people who pay their salaries to stand up for unknown outside interests.

Since 1953, when citizen initiated zoning became Montana law, 111 zones have been put in place all over the state, including one in Stillwater County. The most basic requirement is a petition signed by 60% of the landowners in the proposed zone.

What the Commissioners have done in Gallatin, Missoula, Ravalli, and Yellowstone Counties – where many of these zones reside — is honor the grass roots efforts of their constituents. When presented with valid legal petitions that are consistent with county policies, they approve them.


Not in Stillwater County, where officials have decided to invent new law to keep landowners from exercising their rights. Last August, County Attorney Nancy Rohde notified the petitioners that they had reached the required 60% of signatures. But then County officials decided to get clever. In rejecting the zone this week, they came up with a whole new rule never used before in any Montana county. What they’ve told the petitioners is they need the signatures of 60% of the surface owners, but ALSO 60% of the owners of mineral rights beneath the surface.

An impossible requirement
The Commissioners know this is impossible. Everybody knows who the surface owners are. They pay property taxes, vote in elections, shop at the IGAs. But nobody knows who the mineral holders are. They don’t pay local taxes, and they have no stake in Stillwater County other than the remote hope of getting a royalty check. No title company has a list of them. Neither does the County Clerk. I don’t know who owns mineral rights under our property, and you probably don’t either. The County has invented a standard that is impossible for any petitioners to achieve, or for the County to validate. It is simply an attempt to circumvent the law.

To put a finer point on it, mineral rights holders fall into several categories. Some of them own surface land within the proposed zone. They were already included in the petition process and had the opportunity to decide whether or not to sign. Some live in Stillwater County outside the proposed zone but own minerals inside the zone. They can participate in the process by attending public hearings or serveing on commissions. The only ones who can’t participate are outsiders. They don’t live in Stillwater County, don’t pay taxes there, and will never know if a toxic spill kills livestock or if Stillwater River Road gets torn up by truck traffic. And they’ll have no reason to care.

These are the people and companies the Commissioners have decided to support instead of the local landowners who pay their salaries. Does that make sense to you?

Beartooth Front landowners are trying to establish reasonable regulations on oil and gas drilling to preserve their community for the future. The petitioners do not oppose drilling, and are very clear that mineral owners have the right to develop their holdings. What they seek is a balance that will protect farming, ranching, and recreation, and preserve a way of life long after the operators have moved on. It is a reasonable and legal goal.

Petitioners want to protect Stillwater County for the long term. Photo: Gage Peterson

A review
So let’s review what happened here. The Stillwater County Commissioners received a petition signed by the people who put them in office and pay to provide the County’s budget. The petition was carefully constructed to meet all legal requirements to establish a citizen initiated zone, in accordance with law and practice in Montana for the last 65 years. They proposed to do it in a way that would protect the long term health of the community without depriving mineral rights holders of their rightful opportunity to pursue their mineral interests. Even though the Commissioners threw continuous hurdles and roadblocks at them, the petitioners persisted. And they got it done with the overwhelming support of their neighbors. The County Clerk and the County Attorney verified it. Mark Crago, one of the Commissioners, even involved himself in the counting.

Yet the Commissioners decided to come up with all kinds of ways to block the zone, and ultimately told local taxpayers that they were going to interpret the law in a new and novel way, differently from the way the Commissioners in Missoula, Ravalli, Yellowstone, and Gallatin counties ever had; differently from past Stillwater County Commissioners. And they’re doing this to protect the rights of people who don’t live in the County, who don’t have any long-term interest in the health of the community.

They didn’t have to do this. They could have acted as Montana county commissioners have acted before them, held a public hearing, and set up the zone. That’s what most elected officials would do. They would meet with their constituents, try to understand what they wanted, and help them get it done. These Commissioners have never done that. After three years not one of them has a clue what regulations the petitioners want to put in place. They just know that, whatever it is, they don’t want it.

As a result, the Commissioners are going to wind up wasting precious County resources trying to defend a fantasy legal theory in court against the local landowners who put them in office and pay their salaries. Why are they doing this? Got me. Maybe they don’t understand what they’re doing, maybe they don’t care about the people who pay their salaries, or maybe they are being influenced by outsiders who want to make sure Montana landowners can’t exercise their rights. Time will tell.

The petitioners have no choice but to go to court to find out.

Action steps
We may be asking you to take action in several steps as this plays out over time. The Stillwater landowners remain committed to setting up their zone, no matter what it takes.

The first thing you can do is contact the County Commissioners and County Attorney to let them know you don’t want them to waste County resources to support outside interests. Perhaps we can convince them to give up their folly and support the petitioners. Here’s how to reach them:

Dennis Shupak, Commissioner, Chair (District 1)
Term expires: 2020
Photo: Alpine Images

Mark Crago, Commissioner (District 2)
Term expires: 2022
Photo: Marlo Pronovost, Stillwater County News

Maureen Davey, Commissioner (District 3)
Term Expires: 2018
Photo: Alpine Images

County Attorney Nancy Rohde
Term expires: 2018


Find out more
Citizen initiated zoning, a way to restore fairness to oil and gas drilling in Montana
How to find out who owns the mineral rights to your land
Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district (with video)
Stillwater County Commissioners ignore County residents on issue after issue. This has to change.
Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zoning in Montana?

Watch this video created by local petitioners:


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Nebraska Public Service Commission approves Keystone XL Pipeline

The proposed path of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Click to enlarge.

In a 3-2 decision that removes the last regulatory hurdle to building the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, the Nebraska Public Service Commission approved the 36-inch crude oil conduit this morning. The section would send 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the tar sands of Alberta and connect with the existing Keystone Pipeline to move the oil to the Gulf Coast. The KXL would be built across Alberta, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

This section of the pipeline was originally proposed in 2008 but was rejected in 2015 by President Obama, who said at the time, “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change, and frankly, approving this project would have undercut that leadership.” President Trump reversed the decision last March, calling the pipeline “the greatest technology known to man or woman.”

In Omaha earlier this month, protestors against the Keystone XL. Photo: Canadian Press/AP/Nati Harnick

The NPSC decision came just a few days after a 210,000 gallon oil spill in a section of the existing Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota.

The approval doesn’t mean the pipeline is going to get built. Much has changed in the nine years since the KXL was proposed:

  • Transcanada, the Canadian company that owns the rights to construct the pipeline, has not decided if it will build the KXL because it doesn’t know if it has enough shippers to make the $8 billion project work financially. It expects to make the decision in December.
  • Financial markets for oil in general are much different than they were when the KXL was originally proposed. Back then the price for tar sands oil hovered around $150 per barrel. Today that price is about $62. This year seven major multinational companies pulled out of the tar sands because of financial issues.
  • The route approved today by the NPSC is an alternative route that would run through several different Nebraska counties than the original route. This will mean that rights of way will need to be secured from landowners in those counties. In a dissent to today’s decision, one of the NPSC commissioners said many of the landowners along the now-approved route may not be aware of the right of way requirement because no notice was given to them by TransCanada or the state.
  • Opponents of the project, spearheaded by the grass roots group Bold Nebraska, have promised to file lawsuits to challenge today’s decision. You can donate to their efforts here.

Without the continued efforts of those opposing the KXL, it would have already been built. Stay strong.

Update 11/20/2017: Transcanada’s statement on the NPSC decision. This doesn’t sound like a company itching to move forward.

Update 11/23/2017: Jonathan Thompson of High Country News on pipeline spills:

Pipelines are often touted as safer than train or truck for transporting oil and other hazardous materials. But over the last two-and-a-half years, crude oil and hazardous materials pipelines across the U.S. busted at a rate of more than once per day, through corrosion, floods, lightning, vehicles and vandals. That doesn’t even take into account incidents on natural gas lines.

Some 3.6 million gallons of crude oil spilled in total, and five oil spills were as large or larger than the Keystone incident….”

Read more, with interactive map of pipeline spills.

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More than 200,000 gallons of oil have spilled along the Keystone Pipeline

Click to see larger map

In a statement today Transcanada, operators of the Keystone Pipeline, announced:

Transcanada crews safely shut down its Keystone pipeline at approximately…5 a.m. MST after a drop in pressure was detected in its operating system resulting from an oil leak that is under investigation. The estimated volume of the leak is approximately 5,000 barrels. The section of pipe along a right-of-way approximately 35 miles (56 kilometres) south of the Ludden pump station in Marshall County, South Dakota.

5,000 barrels is equivalent to 210,000 gallons.

Bad timing — the spill comes just as the Nebraska Public Service Commission is about to decide whether it is going to issue a permit to Transcanada to build the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.

This is the third — and by far the largest — spill on this section of the Keystone. There were spills of about 40,000 gallons each in 2011 and 2016.

David Flute, chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, told BuzzFeed News the leak was on a section of pipeline adjacent to his reservation. He said the area has “the cleanest lakes in South Dakota,” as well as a large subterranean aquifer, and is concerned about the possibility of contamination.

“I’m thinking there is going to be an impact, some type of environmental impact,” Flute said. “As the oil seeps, if they can’t contain the spill, which I’m hoping they do, if they’re unable to contain it from seeping into the water systems, it can be hurtful and harmful to everybody.”

“This disastrous spill from the first Keystone Pipeline makes clear why Keystone XL should never be built,” said Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Trump’s issuance of a permit for Keystone XL is a farce that will only lead to more pollution for people and wildlife.”

Readers of this website are well aware that oil spills are an unavoidable result of drilling. A 2017 study determined that there were 4,453 spills in North Dakota from 2005-14. According to Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation data, there were 62 spills in Montana in 2016.

In a fragile ecosystem highly dependent on concentrated sources of water like the Beartooth Front, today’s spill is a reminder that local regulation to protect communities from the damage done by drilling is essential.

That is why residents are attempting to work with County Commissioners on local ordinances in Stillwater County.

Read Transcanada Statement

Video update 11/18/2017:


Posted in Fracking Information | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Montana Climate Assessment says dramatic changes are coming; we need to be in action

According to the Montana Climate Assessment, published last week, the impacts of climate change are already being felt in the state, and will get more significant throughout the rest of the century.

Click to download Montana Climate Assessment Executive Summary

The Assessment is the work of 32 Montana scientists from the public and private sectors doing research with the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, a collaboration of the University of Montana and Montana State University. The publication is the first of a series, and focuses on the impacts of climate trends on three key sectors: water, forests, and agriculture.

Key findings of the study

  • Annual average temperatures, including daily minimums, maximums, and averages, have risen across the state between 1950 and 2015. The increases range between 2.0-3.0°F (1.1-1.7°C) during this period. Along the Beartooth Front, in the south central region of the state, the increase has been 0.44°F per decade during the period. [high agreement, robust evidence]
  • The Climate Assessment looked at two scenarios for change in the future: a “business as usual” scenario in which there is little action to reduce carbon emissions, and a “stabilization” scenario in which action is taken to substantially reduce emissions. Montana is projected to continue to warm in all geographic locations, seasons, and under all emission scenarios throughout the 21st century. By mid century, Montana temperatures are projected to increase by approximately 4.5-6.0°F (2.5-3.3°C), depending on the stabilization scenario. By the end of the century, Montana temperatures are projected to increase 5.6-9.8°F (3.1-5.4°C) depending
    on the emission scenario. These state-level changes are larger than the average changes
    projected globally and nationally. See figure below. [high agreement, robust evidence]

The projected increase in annual average daily maximum temperature (°F) for regions of the state for the periods 2049-2069 and 2070-2099 for (A) stabilization and (B) business-as-usual emission scenarios

Impact on water

  • Across the state, precipitation is projected to increase in winter, spring, and fall; but to decrease in summer. The largest increases are expected to occur during spring in the southern part of the state. The largest decreases are expected to occur during summer in the central and southern parts of the state. [moderate agreement, moderate evidence]
  • Montana’s snowpack has declined since the 1930s in mountains west and east of the Continental Divide; this decline has been most pronounced since the 1980s. [high agreement, medium evidence]
  • Warming temperatures over the next century, especially during spring, are likely to reduce snowpack at mid and low elevations. [high agreement, robust evidence]
  • Historical observations show a shift toward earlier snowmelt and an earlier peak in spring runoff in the Mountain West (including Montana). Projections suggest that these patterns are very likely to continue into the future as temperatures increase. [high agreement, robust evidence]
  • Earlier onset of snowmelt and spring runoff will reduce late-summer water availability in snowmelt-dominated watersheds. [high agreement, robust evidence]
  • Groundwater demand will likely increase as elevated temperatures and changing seasonal availability of traditional surface-water sources (e.g., dry stock water ponds or inability of canal systems to deliver water in a timely manner) force water users to seek alternatives. [high agreement, medium evidence]
  • Multi-year and decadal-scale droughts have been, and will continue to be, a natural
    feature of Montana’s climate [high agreement, robust evidence]; rising temperatures will likely exacerbate drought when and where it occurs. [high agreement, medium evidence]
  • Changes in snowpack and runoff timing will likely increase the frequency and duration of drought during late summer and early fall. [high agreement, medium evidence]

Impact on Forests

  • Direct effects of climate change on individual trees will be driven by temperature in energy-limited forests and moisture in water-limited forests. [high agreement, moderate evidence]
  • The speed and magnitude of climate change may mean that increased forest mortality and contractions in forest distribution will outpace any gains in forest growth and productivity over the long run, leading to a net loss of forested area in Montana.
  • An increase in fire risk — including an increase in size and possible frequency and/or severity — is expected in the coming century as a result of a) prolonged fire seasons due to increased temperatures, and b) increased fuel loads from past fire suppression. [high agreement, robust evidence]
  • Rising temperatures are likely to increase bark beetle survival [high agreement, strong
    evidence], but climate-induced changes to other insects and forest pathogens are more
    varied and less certain

Impacts on agriculture

  • Every component of agriculture—from prices to plant pollinators and crop pests—exhibits complex relationships to climate, depending on the location, weather variability, and agricultural and economic practices and policies. Social and economic resilience to withstand and adapt to variable conditions has always been a hallmark of Montana farmers’ and livestock producers’ strategies for coping with climate variability. [high agreement, robust evidence]
  • Decreasing mountain snowpack will continue to lead to decreased streamflow and less reliable irrigation capacity during the late growing season. Reduced irrigation capacity will have the greatest impact on hay, sugar beet, malt barley, market garden, and potato production across the state. [high agreement, robust evidence]
  • Increases in temperature will allow winter annual weeds, such as cheatgrass, to increase in distribution and frequency in winter wheat cropland and rangeland. Their spread will result in decreased crop yields and forage productivity as well as increased rangeland wildfire frequency. [high agreement, medium evidence]
  • Climate change affects global-price-determined commodity agriculture differently than
    it affects non-commodity agriculture. Commodity crops, such as small grains, are more
    directly driven by global markets and agricultural subsidies, whereas non-commodity crops tend to be more directly tied to local or specialized non-local markets and local microclimates. [high agreement, medium evidence]
  • Diversified cropping systems, including rotation with pulse crops and innovations in tillage and cover-cropping, along with other measures to improve soil health, will continue to allow adaptation to climate change.

What it means for the Beartooth Front

Folks, this report is what climate science looks like. These are Montana scientists, employed in state universities and the private sector, taking a transparent look at climate change and the state’s future.

That future is fraught with problems for the state: significantly increasing temperatures, leading to increasng demands on groundwater and more severe droughts, deforestation, more intense fires, and substantial demands for adaptation from the state’s agricultural sector.

And unless we take action, it’s going to be much worse. Look at the temperature maps above — if we do nothing, we’re looking at temperature increases approaching 10°F. That means we’ve got to take dramatic action to reduce carbon emissions: convert the energy sector from fossil fuels to renewables as quickly as possible, shift the transportation sector from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. It means we’ve got to stop subsidizing the oil industry and put a price on carbon to drive innovation.

And even if we do those things, we’re still looking at significant temperature rise and impacts.

For those of us interested in acting locally, it means we’ve got to put our foot down when the oil man comes knocking, promising to bring the Bakken to the Beartooths. We’ve got to create local regulations to make sure that if they drill they do it responsibly, and we’ve got to push local elected officials who insist on dragging their feet.

Climate change could be devastating to rural Montana. The impacts on water, on forests, and on agriculture demand that we act quickly and with great urgency.

More: Download the complete Montana Climate Assessment

Posted in Climate change | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

ACTION ALERT: Please write by September 20 to keep BLM from selling oil leases in Stillwater County

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to sell three oil and gas leases in Stillwater County in March, 2018. Two are in Dean (MTM 105431-HW, MTM 79010-8R) and one is on East Fiddler Creek (MTM 79010-JJ). A public comment period is now open. Please make your voice heard by sending in comments about the lease by Wednesday, September 20.

Your comment is critical. The last time a lease was considered in Dean, it wound up being deferred, partly because there were 40 letters sent to BLM opposed to drilling.

Comments should be emailed to:

Background: The BLM leasing process

BLM Billings Field Office

The Billings BLM Field Office (click to enlarge)

The BLM leasing process is governed by a resource management plan (RMP) and associated environmental impact statement (EIS). Together they provide a framework for managing BLM-administered lands and federal minerals. Stillwater County is part of the Billings BLM field office combined with the Pompeys Pillar National Monument, and are managed under an RMP that was revised in 2015.

The RMP guides management of approximately 434,000 acres of BLM land and 1.8 million acres of federal mineral estate managed by BLM for Big Horn, Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland and Yellowstone counties in Montana, and portions of Big Horn County, Wyoming.

This recent revision is important, since the RMP is only updated every 25 years or so. Changes to the RMP, along with the clear direction of the Trump Administration to remove regulation that block drilling, make it more likely that these leases will be approved than it was in 2014, the last team BLM leases were considered in Stillwater County.

Click on map to download BLM parcel maps for potential lease sales

Lease sales
Leases on BLM land are put up for sale when there is a request from a company that wants to exploit mineral resources. The process is governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions.

To meet NEPA requirements federal agencies prepare a detailed statement known as an environmental assessment. EPA reviews and comments on environmental assessments prepared by other federal agencies, maintains a national filing system for all assessments, and assures that its own actions comply with NEPA.

The environmental assessment involves two steps:

  1. Public Scoping: This step involves the community in determining whether there are environmental impacts that need to be considered. These impacts might include:
  • Significant natural resources such as ecosystems and threatened and endangered species;
  • Commercial and recreational fisheries;
  • Current recreational uses of the land and waterways;
  • effects on water users;
  • Effects of potential controls on current lake and waterway uses such as flood risk management, commercial and recreational navigation, recreation, water supply, hydropower and conveyance of effluent from wastewater treatment plants and other industries; and
  • Statutory and legal responsibilities relative to use of land and water.

2. Preliminary environmental assessment: Public review of preliminary environmental assessment. This process takes 30 days before the final environmental assessment.

Given the change in environment at BLM, there is a current push to evaluate these leases without the full EIS process.

Talking points to consider
In making your comments, you might want to consider some of these points. The first is most important.

  • Public process. A 15 day scoping period is inadequate for Dean and surrounding communities to properly evaluate this leases. There are significant issues that must be evaluated, and a full environmental impact statement is required. There are environmental and social and economic impacts that a lease decision will impose on this community that must be properly evaluated.
  • Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout Suitable Recovery Habitat. A thorough assessment of the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout (YCT) habitat in parcels MTM 79010-8R, MTM 79010-JJ, and MTM 105431-HW should be conducted.  As a priority wildlife species, yellowstone cutthroat trout warrant specific and strong action to protect and enhance not only existing habitat, but also potential YCT habitat. The high elevation waters of these parcels along the Beartooth Mountain Front are suitable to support coldwater fish like the YCT, and therefore should be opportunistically managed for YCT residency whether or not Meadow, Fishtail, Fiddler, and/or West Rosebud Creek are YCT-bearing waters at this time.

Considering BLM’s regulation requiring No Surface Occupancy (NSO) within ½ mile of YCT habitat, the BLM should analyze whether any oil and gas development could occur within or near these parcels without violating this requirement. We note that there has been excavation on a drill location very near the boundary of MTM 105431 HW and MTM 79010-8R. Two branches of Meadow Creek flow directly through these two parcels, and downstream from the lease parcel the two branches combine and the stream flows adjacent to the margin of the drill location excavation.  Meadow Creek flows into Fishtail Creek about one mile east of lease parcel MTM 105431 HW creating another potential impact area.  Similarly to the two adjacent parcels, the East Fork of Fiddler Creek flows through MTM 79010-JJ, which flows into West Rosebud Creek.

  • Maintenance of soil and wetland resources. Beyond concerns for the yellowstone cutthroat trout, the BLM should consider soil and wetland resources of these parcels. As previously indicated, Meadow Creek runs through parcels MTM 105431-HW and MTM 79010-8R, while East Fork of Fiddler Creek flows through MTM 79010-JJ and these parcels should be considered for their resource value.Furthermore, the land in these parcels as historically agricultural land, has significant resource value in maintaining healthful and productive soils. The value of the surface as productive rangeland should be evaluated in detail by the BLM before any oil and gas development is considered.
  • Historic preservation of the unincorporated township of Dean and surrounding ranch structures. As mentioned by the BLM in the proposed deferral in leasing of parcel MTM 105431-HW and MTM 79010-8R, the parcels include the unincorporated township of Dean. As a pioneer village with a history stretching back to the 19thcentury, the Dean site is potentially important to the history of both homesteading and mining in the area.  BLM should evaluate the historic resources represented by the Dean townsite, the Dean schoolhouse, and adjacent ranches as historic properties subject to compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.

In addition, the geologic feature adjacent to Dean on the west, Fishtail Butte is a site sacred to Native Americans, specifically the Crow Indians.  Crow oral histories indicate that this is a historic vision quest site attributable to the important Crow chief, Medicine Crow.  BLM should analyze this area as a potential Traditional Cultural landscape.

  • Socioeconomic impact on the Township of Dean and surrounding properties. The BLM should consider socioeconomic impacts to the modern unincorporated township of Dean. Over the past several years, the surrounding area has experienced a transition from a primarily ranching community to a mixed amenity-based pattern of land ownership, intermixed with the traditional ranching community.  The BLM should consider how oil and gas development could harm the new and developing community center Dean has become.Specifically, BLM should consider impacts to surrounding property values that are currently supported by unimpeded views and the aesthetics represented by the absence of light pollution and the spectacular viewshed of the Beartooth Mountains—one of the most iconic viewsheds of the Northern Rocky Mountain Front and even the nation.

The impact of industrial development should be considered in light of the positive economic impact of a new social group of property owners that are important to this immediate area, providing low impact increases to the tax base and general prosperity of the community. Additionally, the BLM should fully evaluate how the visual, auditory, and interference in the amenity values would affect Dean’s commercial base. The BLM should analyze how a well pad site located on or near (see above comment regarding cutthroat trout habitat) parcel MTM 105431-HW and MTM 79010-8R within view of Dean would impact its status as a community center.

  • Adjacent oil and gas leases. As noted above, SPA is aware that BLM lease parcel MTM 105431-HW is adjacent to other non-federal minerals and private oil and gas leases that have already seen the establishment of a pad for a presumed drilling location.  The potential for drainage problems notwithstanding, BLM should make its decision based on impacts to the resources mentioned above.  Other methods exist to address drainage besides a positive lease decision, even with NSO imposed, on a parcel that affects the important resource values already stated above.

Thanks for sending your comments. Public feedback plays a big part in these decisions. Again, comments should be emailed to:

Thanks to Cameron Clevidence at Northern Plains Resource Council for his help in putting together this post.

Posted in Community Organization | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zones in Montana?

As noted earlier this month, the Stillwater County Commissioners have found that the group seeking to form a citizen initiated zone in southern Stillwater County has collected the signatures of over 60% of the landowners in the proposed zone, the minimum threshold required by law. That is a major accomplishment by a dedicated group of volunteers over a long period of time, and a tribute to the commitment of local landowners to preserving their community.

Map courtesy Bert Sperling,

However, the Commissioners have questioned whether the mineral rights holders in the proposed district should be counted toward the 60% in addition to the freeholders, or landowners. They plan to request an opinion from Montana Attorney General Tim Fox on whether this is the case, which could delay action on the zone for a significant period of time.

The fact that the Commissioners feel this is an open question made me wonder whether this is really an issue in practice in Montana. After all, citizen initiated zoning has been allowed by the Legislature since 1953 (see page 8), and the process, requiring the signatures of “real property owners,” is well established in Montana law.

If the law has been in place for 64 years, other counties in Montana must be using it. Are they struggling with the same issue? I took a look at the web site for every county in the state to find out.

The counties listed below provide links to citizen initiated zones on their web sites. They sometimes call them by different names — special zones, Part 1 zones, RFIDs — but the listings all refer to special districts created under MCA § 76-2-101. Other counties may have citizen initiated zones as well, but they are not identified on their web sites.

County (population)                Number of citizen initiated zones
Yellowstone (158,437)                                        6
Missoula (116,130)                                            31
Gallatin (104,502)                                             23
Flathead (98,082)                                              1*
Ravalli (42,088)                                                41
Park (16,114)                                                       6
Stillwater (9,406)                                               1**
Dawson (9,327)                                                  2

* Not listed on website, but per email from a Flathead County planner
** Not listed on website, but the West Fork Stillwater District was formed in 1979. Petitions were signed by landowners only, and approved by the Stillwater Commissioners.

That’s at least 111 citizen initiated zones formed under the same Montana law used by the Stillwater petitioners. How many, I wondered, were formed by petitions of both surface and mineral owners?

So I looked at the citizen initiated zoning process for the counties that posted them, talked to the planning department and clerk and recorder of a number of them, and could find no indication that a single one of the 111 required the signatures of mineral rights holders. Many of the zones are decades old, but no one I spoke to had ever been involved with a zone that included mineral rights holders in the petition process.

There are very good reasons for this, of course. First, it’s a practical impossibility to find out who the mineral owners are. There are no databases of Montana mineral rights holders. We’ve often discussed the research it takes to find out who owns the mineral rights to your land. Imagine having to do a title search for the 600+ properties in the Stillwater Zone, tracking down the contact information of every fractional owner, and obtaining their signatures. And if you were successful, how could the County Clerk validate the signatures without doing a similar search?

And what about the existing 110+ citizen initiated zones in Montana, created by dedicated volunteers concerned about protecting their own properties and approved by their county commissioners? If the Attorney General decides that mineral owners need to be included, will they have to disband because they didn’t get the signatures of mineral holders?

The Montana Legislature established citizen initiated zoning over 60 years ago and has updated the code several times since then. You have to imagine that if  they had wanted mineral rights owners to be a part of this they would have specifically said so.

If counties around the state have been enacting these zones for decades without considering this question, why should this be an issue now?


  • Ravalli County, which has the largest number of citizen initiated zones, has established a very clear process for landowners who seek to establish a citizen initiated zone. It does not include mineral rights holders. Download.
  • Missoula County information regarding the creation of citizen initiated zones. The document specifically refers to the collection of signatures of freeholders, and mentions nothing about mineral rights holders.
  • An example of a 1994 resolution to create a Ravalli County zoning district. Note that on Page 11 the document refers to “freeholders” rather than “real property owners.”
  • A citizens guide to forming a zone in Sweet Grass County created in 1999 clearly specifies that it applies only to landowners.
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Stillwater County Beartooth Front Zoning District update

I will be writing more about this in the near future, but want to pass along this update from the Beartooth Front Oil and Gas Committee. This has been a long battle, slowed to a crawl by the Stillwater County Commissioners, who have raised delay to a fine art.

Proposed Beartooth District. Click to enlarge.

The Good News: The Stillwater County Clerk & Recorder has completed the signature verification for our Citizen Initiated Zoning District (CIZD) Petition and declared we have achieved over 60% of required landowner signatures within the proposed district. As you know, this was a huge effort, which took over a year to accomplish and many hurdles cleared along the way. Remember, our petition is not to stop oil and gas development, but to ensure it is done in a responsible manner to protect our water, air, property rights and county infrastructure. We could not have reached this milestone without your continued support – thank you!

The Bad News: Although we have achieved this important milestone, the County Attorney has now presented a new legal issue questioning whether mineral right holders should have been included in the total signature count. This was unexpected, and we have never seen a zoning petition with that requirement in Montana’s history. Until this issue is settled, the County Commissioners will not hold a public hearing to determine if our petition is “in the public interest and convenience.” We are frustrated, once again, by this eleventh-hour delay, and are pursuing a quick resolution by working with legal counsel.

What you can do: As soon as all legal issues are resolved, we will contact you again when the date for the public hearing is scheduled. This hearing is where the County Commissioners will determine the future of our Petition. Our Petition must be found by the Commissioners to be in the public interest and convenience and YOUR support is needed to make this happen!!!

Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district (with video) (11/11/2015)
Stillwater County Commissioners ignore County residents on issue after issue. This has to change (2/9/2016)
Watch the Preserve the Beartooth Front video:




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New federal report shows the extent and likely impact of climate change

A new draft report developed by scientists from thirteen federal government agencies and released this week states that the average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and substantially since 1980, and that it is “extremely likely” that nearly all of the global mean temperature increase since 1951 has been caused by human activity.

The report directly contradicts statements by the Trump Administration that the causes of global warming are uncertain, and that the impacts of climate change are impossible to predict.

According to the report, global annual temperature has increased by more than 1.6°F from 1880-2015, and average temperatures are higher than at any time in the last 1700 years. The report states that from 1951-2010 the average global mean temperature increase was 1.2°F, and the human contribution to warming during the same period was 1.1° to 1.3°F.

In the United States, the largest changes since 1900 have occurred in the western United States, where average temperatures increased by more than 1.5°F. The chart at left shows annual temperature differences from the average temperature from 1880-2015. Red bars show temperatures above the average for the period, and blue bars show temperatures below the average. Note that since 1980, not only have temperatures been above average every single year, but average temperatures have increased throughout the period.

What’s more, according to the report, “global climate is expected to change over this century and beyond. Even if humans immediately ceased emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, existing levels would commit the the world to at least an additional 0.5°F of warming over this century relative to today.”

If the report is correct, humans can control the amount of warming that occurs by emitting less greehouse gas into the atmosphere, with the magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades determined by the amount of greenhouse gases emitted globally. Within the next few decades however, temperatures will continue to rise — at least 2.5°F — even if we decrease carbon emissions dramatically.

The two graphs above show the temperature impact of different levels of carbon emissions. The graph on the left shows projected changes in annual carbon emissions in units of gigatons of carbon (GtC) per year, and the graph on the right shows the impact of the higher and lower scenario on temperature change. The implication is clear: if we do not dramatically change the level of emissions, we could see global temperature change of up to 10°F by the year 2100. If we begin immediately to reduce emissions, we can hold temperature increases to 2°F.

Other key findings:

  • Reductions in western US winter and spring snowpack are projected as the climate warms. Under high-emissions scenarios, “chronic, long-lasting hydrological drought is possible by the end of the century.”

click to enlarge

  • There will be fewer extreme cold days and more extreme hot days. The graph at right compares the average number of 100° days in Billings currently and the number that we can expect to see in future years under high emissions and low emissions scenarios. Under the high emissions scenario, we can expect nearly 50 days over 100° by the year 2100! (This model created by, and not part of the federal report. To see their model for other cities, click here.)
  • More than 90% of the extra heat being trapped inside the climate system by human emissions is being absorbed by the ocean, causing sea level rise. Global mean sea level has risen by about 8-9 inches since 1880, with about 3 inches of that rise occurring since 1990. Relative to the year 2000, sea level is very likely to rise by 3.6-7.2 inches by 2030; 6-14.4 inches by 2050; and 1-4 feet by 2100. In most projections, sea level will continue to rise beyond 2100 and even beyond 2200.
  • Because human activity is the primary cause of climate change, limiting global warming to 2° will require major reductions in emissions.  Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have now passed 410 parts per million, the highest since the Pliocene Era, approximately three million years ago, when global mean temperatures were 3.6° to 6.3°F higher than they are today.

There is much more in the report, and I recommend you read it. We have much to do if we are going to avoid climate disaster.

And to those of you who will write to tell me that this is a bunch of nonsense: this is science. The authors of the report are leading climate scientists who have employed the scientific method. The data that they analyzed is available to anyone who would like to analyze it and reach a different conclusion.

But keep this in mind: the planet is warming without any consideration for how people feel about science, politics, or religion.

Continue reading

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New long-term study shows 40% decline in native Wyoming deer population due to oil and gas drilling

An important new study shows that oil and gas activity can have severe negative long-term impacts on native wildlife.

click to enlarge

The study, “Mule deer and energy development—Long-term trends of habituation and abundance,” was published last month in Global Change Biology Journal. The authors tracked 187 mule deer for 17 years from 1998-2015 in the upper Green River Basin of western Wyoming, referred to as the Pinedale Anticline. The area is a prime wintering spot for thousands of mule deer, which annually migrate 20-100 miles from summer areas in four different mountain ranges.

The area comprises mostly federal lands (85%) administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Before 2001, this area was relatively undisturbed, with few roads and minimal human activity. Then, in July of 2000, the BLM approved development of 700 producing well pads, 645 km of pipeline, and 444 km of access roads. An additional 4400 wells were approved in 2008.

Photo: Dan Cepeda, Casper Star-Tribune

The results of the study are startling:

  • Click to enlarge

    The deer avoided the wells, staying 2-3 km away during most of the period studied. This avoidance led to a decrease in the habitat available to the deer. Well pad and road construction resulted in direct habitat loss to mule deer winter range of approximately 2,360 acres or 3.5% of the study area.

  • The mule deer population on the Pinedale Anticline declined by 36% over the 15-year development period.
  • The reduction in the herds led to a decline of 45% in the deer harvest taken by hunters during the period. Dale Gillespie, 57, who has hunted in the area all his life, says he hasn’t shot a deer in a decade. “You will lose generations of hunters,” he said. “If they don’t see anything, they will lose interest in the sport.”
  • The remaining deer are much smaller. They have declined in size by 40% since before the oil and gas boom.

The relationship between oil and gas development and the decline of the mule deer population in Wyoming represents one of the many unintended consequences of fossil fuel development. Communities contemplating or beginning development need to be aware of the importance of preserving the natural balance of each community’s way of life — ecological, social, economic — for the long term.

Download the study

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