The passage of a strict new set of zoning guidelines by Gallatin County Commissioners last week is being heralded by one Rocky Mountain conservation group as a model for protecting open spaces across the West. The measure, which applies stringent guidelines to coalbed methane drilling and restricts residential development in the Bozeman Pass area between Livingston and Bozeman, is the culmination of more than four years of work on behalf of more then 200 landowners.
“I think it’s a textbook example of a community-based approach to protecting a rural landscape,” says Dennis Glick, director of the Sonoran Institute’s regional office in Bozeman.
The catalyst for the measure arrived in 2002 when New Jersey-based J.M. Huber Corp. began acquiring mineral leases in the Bozeman Pass area and announced plans to drill for methane gas. A spokesman for Huber was out of the office and could not be reached by press time.
“Instead of paralyzing our community, the threat of coalbed methane drilling galvanized us,” says Gray Davidson, a Bozeman Pass landowner and one of the principal leaders of the effort.
The new regulations require energy companies to study water supplies and other sensitive resources and to submit operational plans for local review and approval before they can drill. If approved by the county, the company would be required to use the best available technology to minimize environmental impacts and post bond to pay for any cleanup. The regulations also limit subdivision development density—a provision that angered some Bozeman Pass landowners. Ultimately, about 65 percent of such landowners were on the record in favor of the measure.
“All of us want to protect the environment, but at the same time we need to make a living,” says Glick, recognizing the quandary of rural landowners across Montana. “I think the lesson here is that…land use plans can be custom tailored to meet the needs of local landowners.”