Helena, Mont. — Recently released documents show the Obama administration was getting ideas from environmental groups about setting aside millions of acres in the West, drawing the ire of land users who said discussions were being developed behind their back.
In the documents—most of which are e-mail messages—the environmental groups suggest various ways to protect land, such as by creating national monuments, buying private land or through conservation easements.
A subsequent internal Interior Department memo—which the agency said is simply the product of brainstorming—listed 2.5 million acres in Montana for a new bison range as one of 14 sites in nine Western states being considered as national monuments.
Some of the other sites mentioned in the Interior Department documents include the Berryessa Snow Mountains in California, the Northwest Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the San Juan Islands in Washington state and two possible designations in Utah: the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said any proposals or decision would face public input.
Republicans who submitted an information request to obtain the documents blasted the information as proof that the administration was privately crafting large-scale land use plans. Federal agencies have so far produced only a fraction of the requested documents, they said.
"We now find references to plans that Montanans were told weren't in the works," said U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican. "This doesn't pass the smell test."
The e-mails show detailed discussions that went into brainstorming for the "Treasured Landscapes Initiative."
In Montana, a dozen or so pages show a back-and-forth discussion setting up meetings and brainstorming ways to protect prairie grasslands stretching from the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge north to the Canadian border. Much of that land is leased for cattle grazing and used in other ways.
"Ranchers were not involved in these discussions despite always being respectful of federal agency processes," said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "Removing ranchers from these lands in the name of preservation is not in the public's best interest."
Motorized users said they also were surprised to find out they were left out of the brainstorming for land they use.
"We are concerned that with the Treasured Landscapes Initiative, it appear the only groups that have had input have been the environmental groups," said Russ Ehnes, with the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association. "If there are indeed going to be monument designations, we would expect this administration to do what they promised in the campaign and let all stakeholders participate in the process."
One of the environmental groups suggesting protection for the land in Montana said they were not enlisted by Interior, and said they were informally submitting ideas.
Martha Kauffman, with the World Wildlife Fund, said the group wanted to make sure the prairie area was not forgotten about if there were new federal protections. She said they never got a firm sense what exactly the Treasured Landscapes Initiative was, and how much of it involved monument designations that have drawn the ire of conservatives in the West.
"It wasn't like they reached out to us. We had heard of it through the grapevine, that there was this initiative," Kauffman said. "I think everyone needs a voice in it. There's the ranchers, there's the hunters, there's the conservation groups, there's a lot of different folks with an interest out there and I think they all have an important viewpoint."
The Interior Department stressed that any proposals for federal land conservation would face public review and require local support.
"Secretary Salazar believes new designations and conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts to better manage places that are important to nearby communities," said Betsy Hildebrandt, agency spokeswoman.