Bill to remove Wilderness Study Area designation draws big crowd

Harley Rouns addresses the issue of wilderness study areas during the Fergus County Commission meeting Wednesday evening.

Photo by Deb Hill

Audience members fill the public seating at the District Court Wednesday, waiting to comment on Wilderness Study Areas.

Photo by Deb Hill

Astanding-room-only crowd, nearly 140 people, packed the District Court courtroom Wednesday evening, proving the topic of wilderness is still fairly controversial, at least in Fergus County.

County commissioners were taking public comment on a bill introduced by Senator Steve Daines to remove the Wilderness Study Area designation from 973,000 acres in Montana, including 91,000 acres in the Big Snowy Mountains and 81,000 acres in the Little Belts.

Daines’ bill, S2206, titled “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act,” was introduced Dec. 7, 2017 to deal with lands Daines said should have been ruled on during the five years following passage of the Montana Wilderness Study Act in 1977.

All three Fergus County commissioners signed a letter to Daines dated Oct. 13, 2016, supporting efforts to remove the WSA designation from lands in the Big Snowy Mountains.

“We believe this area has languished under this designation long enough,” the letter read. “The continued WSA designation hinders responsible management of these public resources.”

Some of Wednesday’s speakers opposed removal of the WSA designation, and called on the commissioners to rescind their 2016 letter.

Others supported the commissioners and the Daines’ bill, saying the Wilderness Study Area designations have been in place long enough.

Water, fire, wild lands items of concern

Despite fairly passionate statements by speakers on one side or the other, civility was the order of the evening. Many in the audience identified themselves as sportsmen or outdoor enthusiasts.

“I am a fisherman and a hunter,” said county resident Laurie Lohrer, leading off comments opposed to lifting the WSA designation. “Sometimes I like to fish where it is quiet. Sometimes I like to hunt where it is walk-in hunting only. We don’t need every use in every area.”

“The reason I live here is because we still have wild lands left,” said Pete Pratt Jr. of Lewistown. “If you travel around the nation and the world, you see there are not many wild places left. Why do we have to make everything the same? Why can’t some places stay wild?”

“The federal government is not always a good neighbor. Thirty-five years of studying an area is enough,” said Dave McClure, who supports the Daines’ bill.

“My first concern is protection,” said Tony Smith of Lewistown, “but removing wilderness status doesn’t remove protection. The current Forest Service draft transportation plan shows all the trails in the Snowies closed to cyclists. We are losing mountain biking tourism dollars.”

Fire danger was a concern for several speakers, including Jerry Simpson of Moore.

“My grandfather homesteaded in the Snowies,” Simpson said. “That place up there is a fire trap. When it goes, the fire could end up right here. That public land needs to be managed.”

Simpson favored lifting the WSA designation.

“The place is a tinder box,” said Vic Farr who lives near Cottonwood Creek. “The government won’t let us take heavy equipment up there. For three, four, five years after the Jump Off fire, our beautiful Cottonwood Creek ran full of mud and ashes. We need logging and making the area user friendly. I support the commission.”

Aquifer protection was mentioned by several speakers as a reason to keep the designation.

“This is a vital recharge source for the aquifer and a source of Spring Creek,” Glen Elison of Lewistown said. “The WSA protects a large area of the aquifer and should not be removed, because we don’t understand the dynamics of it.”

“I grew up on Beaver Creek,” Barbara Lodman told the commissioners. “The Snowies look the same as when I was a kid growing up. It’s a little jewel and Spring Creek is liquid gold. If the area is not protected, you just can’t put it back the way it was.”

Comments to D.C.

After about an hour and a half of testimony, Commission Presiding Officer Ross Butcher brought the testimony to a close.

“We appreciate you coming and lending your voice,” Butcher said. “We intend to pass all this, including the letters, to our congressional delegation.”

After the meeting, Butcher said detailed minutes taken during the public comment process will be included, along with letters and emails the board has received.

“This was a good thing we did, good for the community,” Butcher told the News-Argus. “We have no jurisdiction, no authority on federal lands. The action is all in D.C. but we want to be responsive to the people here. It was a good opportunity to hear all the perspectives.”

Butcher said he felt many who spoke were more in agreement than not.

“No one wants to see the integrity of these lands diminished or damaged,” he said. “We all want the water protected. This is a good basis for us to work from going forward. Whichever side you’re on, I think this was a fairly rational discussion.”

A spokesperson for Senator Daines, contacted after the meeting, said the Senator “looks forward to reviewing the community’s comments. The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act introduced by the Senator was in response to an extensive bottom up local public process, and that same approach will continue to guide his efforts.”

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