Locals give Congressman input on WSAs and public lands legislation

By: 
CHARLIE DENISON
Reporter
Friday, August 17, 2018

Congressman Greg Gianforte (R-Mont) leads a roundtable discussion about public lands legislation Wednesday morning.

Photo by Charlie Denison

Congressman Greg Gianforte was back in town Wednesday, leading a panel at the Fergus County Sheriff’s complex and discussing public land bills with 11 stakeholders from around the state. 

“I’m here to listen today,” Gianforte told the panel, journalists and a few members of the public as the meeting got started. “As you know, Montanans feel really strongly about our public lands. These are critical to our way of life…we all want what we think is best for our public lands, but we have different ideas.”

In Congress, Gianforte said he follows three core principals when it comes to public lands: keep public lands in public hands, work to increase public access and trust in the voice of the local community.

“I listen to our state legislature and impacted counties: their message is clear,” Gianforte said. “Congress needs to act because we’ve had some public lands locked up [as Wilderness Study Areas] almost 40 years. [This] led me to introduce the ‘Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act’ and also the ‘Unlocking Public Lands Act.’ The legislation is consistent with what I heard from state legislators and local leaders.” 

There was much for Gianforte to listen to Wednesday, as representatives of various organizations shared their thoughts on legislation Gianforte introduced in March in hopes to reevaluate management for more than 690,000 acres of Montana public lands, including parts of the Snowy Mountains.

Lewistown native Doug Krings was on the panel representing Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Krings argued wilderness areas are unique and should not be taken for granted.

“There are more and more people, but there are no more wild places,” Krings said. “There are very few places that exist like what we have here [in the Snowy Mountains], and I hope we can come up with something good.”

All of those present on the panel agreed many voices need to be heard, especially local voices.

“The question for us isn’t ‘should we release wilderness study areas?’ The question is, ‘how do we manage public lands to benefit multiple interests and protect multiple users?’” said Montana Wildlife Federation Executive Director Dave Chadwick. “The way we answer that question is through stakeholder discussions that are inclusive, involve local communities and have robust public involvement.”

“I’d like to see a mechanism to keep all the stakeholders at the negotiating table,” said Mark Lambrecht, government affairs director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. 

“Appropriate long-term solutions need to be driven by a range of stakeholders through conversations and collaboration,” said Outdoor Alliance representative KT Miller. “While we appreciate this roundtable today, we’d like to see more opportunities across the state for all constituents to share their thoughts on these important issues.”

 Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, shared similar sentiments. It’s his hope to collaborate with as many partners as possible and try to meet a diverse set of uses for the land. Public process, he said, is the way to find the answers.

“Releasing the WSAs is the absolute first step,” he said. “The mandatory follow-up involves local, robust discussions that have to happen on the ground. Our organization supports having these discussions on a local level rather than a national level.”

During the discussion, Minard said he expects to see the WSA process become more public; if it doesn’t there’s a problem.

“I have little confidence our national leaders have the capacity to sit down and navigate this through at a federal level,” he said. “Therefore, our support for the release of the WSAs is with the understanding there will be a localized process at the Forest level…if that assumption is wrong, then our position will change.”

Amy Robinson of the Montana Wilderness Association said collaborative discussions – whether local or interagency – aren’t just important, but are also enjoyable.

“I’ve worked side by side with all kinds of Montanans and all kinds of groups that reflect the wide diversity across our state, and if there’s one thing that rings true for me over and over it’s that we actually like working together,” Robinson said. “We like sitting around the table, we like hammering out details and we like talking to people that might come from a different world than we do. We’re good at it.”

It’s not easy, Robinson said, but common ground solutions that benefit the land and the communities can be found. 

However, Robinson said she feels this particular legislation hasn’t allowed for such conversations to take place.

“There was not one public meeting on this subject, and, in fact, this public meeting wasn’t really a public meeting,” she said. “We’d like to continue to see more meetings and begin a public process to have conversations and open up dialogue with Montanans.”

Robinson said she’s not alone in feeling this way, as 2,600 Montanans signed a letter submitted to Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines opposing the current approach.

“Congressman Gianforte, I am here today to simply ask that you withdraw these bills and start over with a more bipartisan, collaborative approach that involves the public process and diverse interests,” Robinson said. “We certainly all agree at this table that these WSAs need a resolution, but it needs to be done with an extensive public process, and we’re not arguing that we need all WSAs to be wilderness. We need a balanced approach.”

During public comment, Lewistown resident Mary Frieze agreed with Robinson, expressing a need for more conversations at the local level.

“I think Lewistown needs to be considered in your legislation possibilities,” Frieze said. “I think the water that comes from the Snowies that is so important to Lewistown needs to be considered as your collaborative efforts continue.”

Bob Lee, who ranches by the Snowy Mountains, chimed in on the importance of resource management.

“I am concerned about maintenance for many reasons,” he said. “Number one is fire: if we ever have a fire with the wilderness fire plans we have in effect right now, we would not only lose the mountain but neighboring ranches as well. It would be like the fire of 1910. We also need to control the spread of weeds. Weeds will be the ruination of our landscape and our ecosystem. Nothing will be here if we have an uncontrolled weed situation, and the potential is there. There is an issue with access, too. I would certainly like to see more people be able to access this wonderful area, especially in the winter. I am in favor of road plans and not unlimited use.”

Lee said saying “no” to management is easy, but the consequences can be “staggering.”

“After 40 years of study, it’s time to do something,” Lee said.

According to Lewistown resident Laurie Lohrer, however, someone is already doing something.

“The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest just released a revised forest plan they’ve been working on for three years,” Lohrer said. “They’ve done a comprehensive land inventory, they put together a 220-day public comment period and had public meetings in multiple communities around the state. We already have the research done, in terms of the recommendations, and I doubt there is anybody in this room who has more information on this than the Forest Service itself. I feel like we are traveling on parallel tracks, and, personally, I don’t see the need for it.”

Following the meeting, Gianforte expressed appreciation for those who joined the panel and hopes to continue the dialogue.

“I am encouraged by our productive dialogue, and I look forward to continuing this ongoing conversation as I meet with Montanans across the state,” Gianforte said in a release after the event. “I hope Montanans will continue reaching out to let me know what they think about this or any other issue. I value their opinions, am here to serve them and will continue to always put Montana first.”

Gianforte told those in attendance interested in sharing comments to send an email to MontanaPublicLands@mail.house.gov.

 

 

Representatives were present from the following organizations

Citizens for Balanced Use 

Montana Association of Counties

Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Montana Outfitters and Guides Association

Montana Stockgrowers Association 

Montana Wild Sheep Foundation 

Montana Wilderness Association

Montana Wildlife Federation

Outdoor Alliance 

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Teddy Roosevelt Conservation

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