Montanans launch campaign celebrating and defending wilderness study areas

Ted Brewer

Guest Opinion

A diverse group of Montanans called Our Land, Our Legacy launched a campaign, website, and social media video to celebrate and defend public lands currently managed as wilderness study areas. The group will run an advertisement in most of the state’s daily newspapers featuring a Lewistown city commissioner. The group will also be asking Montanans to sign an open letter to Montana’s congressional delegation requesting they find a balanced, bipartisan resolution for all of our wilderness study areas. That letter can be found at ourlandourlegacy.org.

In December, Senator Steve Daines introduced a bill (S.2206) that would open five of these wilderness study areas – the Big Snowies, the Middle Fork Judith, the West Pioneer, the Blue Joint, and the Sapphire – to oil and gas development, mining, and new off-road vehicle use. Managed by the Forest Service, these areas total nearly a half-million acres. S. 2206 will receive a hearing on Wednesday, February 7 in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Daines is a member.

“One of Lewistown’s greatest resources, and a huge source of pride for us, is the water we receive from the Big Snowies, which is some of the purest in the country,” said Dave Byerly, a Lewistown city commissioner and former publisher of the Lewistown News-Argus. “That purity is largely due to the protection we’ve given the Big Snowies WSA for the last 40 years. Since his bill could open the door to oil and gas development in the Big Snowies and threaten our water, it was very disappointing that Sen. Daines didn’t hold a single public meeting in Lewistown or anywhere else in the state to ask residents if this was something we wanted.”

Scattered across the state, Montana’s wilderness study areas amount to more than one million acres. Removing protection from nearly half of that acreage, S. 2206 would constitute the largest rollback of protected public lands in Montana history.

“Our WSAs represent the best of Montana, and this bill sets a precedent that puts all of those areas at risk,” said Karen Aspevig Stevenson, who leads an annual hike into the Terry Badlands WSA near her home in Miles City. “Our outdoor legacy depends on these places, but Sen. Daines hasn’t given the people who use and cherish these places – hikers, hunters, anglers, backpackers, backcountry horsemen and women – a single opportunity to tell him how we’d like them managed for the long haul.”

Residents of four counties – Fergus, Judith Basin, Beaverhead, and Ravalli – recently warned their county commissioners they may have violated Montanan’s open meeting laws when they sent Daines a letter in support of removing protection from WSAs. None of the counties, except Ravalli, held public meetings to discuss the letters before sending them. Ravalli’s meeting included two members of the public.

“This isn’t how we make decisions in Montana on the fate of our public lands,” said Chris Marchion, an inductee in the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame, board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and a lifelong hunter. “Sen. Daines not only sidestepped the public, he also ignored the wishes of our state legislature, which passed a joint resolution last year that said permanent protection should be on the table for many of our WSAs.”

During the 2017 legislative session in Helena, Representative Kerry White, an advocate for transferring public lands to the state, introduced a resolution (H.J.

9) calling on Congress to eliminate protection on seven wilderness study areas. The original resolution triggered thousands of emails and calls from around the state in opposition. At a hearing on the resolution, more than 70 people signed in as opponents of H.J. 9, while only ten signed in as proponents, mostly industry representatives. This outpouring of opposition to the resolution compelled legislators to amend the resolution and add language that asked Congress to, among other management options, consider

permanently protecting – as Wilderness – the places addressed in the resolution.

“Our WSAs are critical for water quality, wildlife, and Montana’s outdoor recreation economy. For these reasons and more, they deserve better than what Senator Daines has put forward,” said Hilary Eisen, policy director at Winter Wildlands Alliance. She’s also member of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, a collaborative of local business owners, mountain bikers, hunters, conservationists, horseback riders, and other recreationists that recently released an agreement that includes recommendations on how the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area should be managed in the future.

“The Gallatin Forest Partnership is one among many collaboratives around the state that are putting their differences aside and using ongoing forest planning processes to chart a path forward for our public lands,” Eisen added. “While the GFP is not focused on legislation at this time, it is a powerful example of what happens when Montanans work together. These types of efforts are the best way to resolve the status of WSAs, instead of some top-down, one-size-fits-all bill that ignores Montanans and ignores what makes each of these WSAs unique.”

More information is available at ourlandourlegacy.org.

Ted Brewer is the communications director for Montana Wilderness Association.

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