Residents Look to Zoning as Shield

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – The prospect of petroleum drilling in Bridger Canyon near Bozeman has some residents of the area looking at zoning as a way to control how oil and gas work might affect the ambiance.

The state owns mineral rights in the canyon and plans a Sept. 9 auction of rights to conduct exploratory oil and gas drilling.

“We’ve concluded that the first line of defense is to buy these (state) leases,” Tom Fiddaman of the Bridger Canyon Property Owners Association told Gallatin County planning and zoning commissioners on Thursday. “Our second line of defense is zoning.” Fiddaman was among a dozen or so Bridger Canyon residents who met with commissioners.

The association says a Natural Resources Conditional Use Permit should be added to the zoning regulations. Among the permit’s requirements: Oil and gas developers would have to conduct environmental impact studies, hold public hearings and enter agreements about hours of operation.

Commissioners took no action Thursday.

Nearly 2,000 acres of state mineral rights in Gallatin County were nominated for auction this fall as part of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s quarterly sales of state leases. Most of the nominated acres are within the Bridger Canyon Zoning District.

News of the proposed leases caused a stir among property owners, Fiddaman said. The association plans to take its concerns to the state Land Board in Helena.

State oil and gas leases generate money that goes toward public education in Montana. In the past five years the state received nearly $126 million in state land oil-and-gas revenue, said Joe Lamson of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

DNRC may put provisions on leases to help mitigate environmental effects, and DNRC Director Mary Sexton said stipulations have been put on the Bridger Canyon tracts. Residents have no control over how those stipulations are enforced, Fiddaman said.

Sexton said it is unclear how zoning would affect holders of leases.

She said state law requires that DNRC do a balancing act; the department must take local laws into consideration but also has a mandate to use state lands in a way that maximizes the return for schools.

Often, petroleum leases are bought on speculation and no drilling occurs, Sexton said.