BLM Press Release – September 26, 2014
BLM starts process to restore Bullwhacker access with by-pass
(LEWISTOWN, Mont.) – The Bureau of Land Management announced today, it has begun the process required to reestablish road access into the Bullwhacker Coulee area of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
“We are currently investigating four separate alternatives, to reestablish road access into the Bullwhacker drainage, using portions of existing roads whenever possible. Once these alternatives have been identified and flagged on the ground, we will carefully analyze the impacts of each alternative in an environmental assessment to determine future public access,” said Michael Kania, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Manager.
The BLM would consider mitigation, including the option of closing, rehabilitating, or reclaiming other existing roads to off-set the resource disturbance. The intent would be to ensure no net gain in the present miles of road with in the area.
Historic public access to approximately 50,000 backcountry acres in the Bullwhacker area within Blaine County had been lost following a 2011 court decision declaring a portion of the Bullwhacker Road crossing private lands to be a private road. A proposed land exchange to restore access was considered, but was determined to be not in the best interest of the American people who have entrusted the BLM to manage their public lands for them.
The BLM has initiated an open and transparent public process in which the public will have a number of opportunities to participate in a resolution long-sought after for restoring motorized public access to the Bullwhacker area. The Bureau is preliminary considering four potential options to find a viable access solution that would garner substantial public support and be in the best interest of the American public the BLM serves.
“Public access to public lands continues to be one of BLM Montana/Dakotas’ top priorities,” said Stan Benes, the BLM Central Montana District Manager. “Our charge in this particular situation is actually to restore the access the public historically had for many decades.”
The 60-day scoping period will begin with public scoping meetings tentatively scheduled for Great Falls Dec. 2, Chinook Dec. 3, and Lewistown Dec. 4. An environmental assessment is expected to be available by May. The goal is to complete the decision process in summer 2015.
PLWA COMMENT ON BLM ACTION
This is another victory for PLWA as we have been the leading advocate for keeping the road open. Here is a brief history of PLWA involvement :
In 2007 the Bullwhacker Road was opened after several years of closure and controversy when the Blaine County Commission declared it to be a public county road. Previously, it had been intermittently closed or opened only by landowner permission. But the road had been used by the public as well as land managers, ranchers, and recreationists since homestead days. During that time thousands of dollars of public money had been spent on maintenance. PLWA expert volunteers researched the road’s history and developed voluminous documentation proving it to be a ” public highway”. This was presented to the Blaine County Attorney who agreed and issued an opinion to that effect.
In 2009 the landowners. William and Olive Robinson, filed suit in the 17th Judicial District court to overturn the County action. They argued the County had no basis for its claim on the 3.8-mile section of the Bullwhacker Road crossing their Anchor Ranch. In march of 2011 Judge John C. McKeon found the evidence necessary to establish a public prescriptive easement inconclusive and ruled for the Robinson’s. In the wake of the court ruling and road closure the BLM declared road access into the Bullwhacker Watershed to be one of their top access goals because some 50,000 acres of BLM land is affected.
The Bullwhacker Watershed is located north of the Missouri River in the heart of the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. The road provides the only over-land access to one of the best bighorn sheep habitats and some of the best big game hunting in the Montana – or North America.
In 2013 the Wilks Brothers, who now own 347,500 acres in Montana making them the largest landowners in the state, purchased the Anchor Ranch from the Robinsons and closed the road. The Wilks brothers then started negotiations with the BLM on a large, complex land exchange, which, among other things, included swapping the Bullwhacker land parcel for the BLM-public Durfee Hills parcels located in Fergus County within their N Bar ranch. (The BLM Durfee hills parcels give the last public access (by air) to one of the largest elk populations in Montana)
Elk hunters in Central Montana charged the land exchange was not in the public interest and organized a successful petition drive to stop BLM negotiations with the Wilks. The hunters demanded that BLM take action on opening an alternate road access into the Bullwhacker Watershed as they had promised for several years.
PLWA joined in that protest and supported the Central Montana Hunters demand for a new Bullwhacker Road to be completed ASAP. The BLM terminated the land-exchange negotiations and said the agency would study road alternatives. Now in October of 2014 , we get the welcome news that action has started . Again, a Major victory for PLWA and the citizenry.