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AG Knudsen calls out USFWS for covert deal with ‘conservation oligarchs’ in Montana

HELENA – Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen demanded the Biden administration’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) provide full transparency and obey the law following the administration’s recent proposal to declare nearly six million acres within Montana – an area larger than nine different states – as a conservation area.

In a letter sent Thursday to USFWS Director Martha Williams, Attorney General Knudsen voiced his concerns over the “Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area” (MHCA) proposal USFWS announced that day. The proposed conservation area spans five counties in southwestern Montana. However prior to September 20, nothing about the MHCA appeared on the USFWS website. Additionally, the proposed area contains approximately 500,0000 acres controlled by the State of Montana, but USFWS did not consult Montana state officials on the project.

“The Kafkaesque scheme of environmental laws and regulations in this country already provides a nearly insurmountable obstacle to the energy, mining, and agriculture industries. And this designation would be another tool wielded and abused by well-funded environmental groups to oppose all permits for responsible development on state and private land. Most troubling, however, is how this project has come to fruition: behind closed doors and hidden from public scrutiny,” Attorney General Knudsen wrote in the letter. “Montanans deserve better than covert deals between federal bureaucrats and conservation oligarchs. I will vehemently oppose any attempt to ram through this consequential project without full transparency and procedural accountability.”

In his letter, Attorney General Knudsen requested that USFWS release all records related to the MHCA and postpone any further action until it formally complies with the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

USFWS’s actions are a blatant violation of the FACA. According to the law, “FACA’s terms promote transparency, accountability, and open public participation in executive branch decisions and prevent informal advisory committees from exerting improper or one-sided influence.” FACA also imposes strict procedural requirements. For example, advisory committees must publish notice of any meetings in the Federal Register, meetings must be open to the public, and committees must make their records and drafts publicly available. USFWS has not complied with this law throughout the MHCA proposal.

Additionally, Attorney General Knudsen calls out the USFWS for only allowing the public 36 days to comment during the scoping period and makes clear that if the USFWS tries to move forward without satisfying FACA, it must provide a public scoping period of at least 90 days followed by a public comment period of another 90 days.

“The public deserves—and the law requires—a meaningful opportunity to scrutinize a project of this magnitude, especially one that has been orchestrated surreptitiously with special interests,” Attorney General Knudsen wrote in the letter.

To read the full letter, click here.