On Dec. 3, Rep. Steve Daines stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh in a joint press conference announcing the attachment of a sweeping and, as the trio dubbed it, "historic" package of public lands bills to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. The news sparked a mix of praise and condemnation over the measures, and confirmed for some in Montana's conservation community rumors that began circulating shortly after Election Day. It also answered a question that has persisted for nearly two years: What would it take for Daines to support the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act?
The Heritage Act—developed by a diverse coalition of Front residents and first introduced by former Sen. Max Baucus—was among some 70 proposals from across the country packaged together as part of the 449-page defense act rider, which made it through Congress last week. And like many of those proposals, the Heritage Act had languished in Congress for several years. Tester joined Baucus as a cosponsor early on. Walsh made his support official this March. Yet much like his predecessor Denny Rehberg, Daines continued to hold listening sessions on the measure and questioned the odds of passing a bill with wilderness designations, of which the Heritage Act has 67,000 acres worth.
In an interview with the Independent, Tester says the push to pass the Heritage Act through the current lame-duck session as part of a broader public lands package began shortly before Election Day. Tester initially tried to negotiate for the inclusion of his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act before realizing if he dug in on the issue "we'd have got nothing." As the negotiations shifted from the Senate to the House after the election, Daines brought a compromise to the table: Pass the Heritage Act, but release wilderness study areas—or WSAs, lands set aside for review as possible wilderness—elsewhere in the state.
"We were looking at, if we were going to put more lands into wilderness as part of the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act, there would be a corresponding kind of offset, if you will, of looking at lands that have already been reviewed as probably not being suitable for wilderness to release some lands out of WSA," Daines tells the Independent.
The final deal struck saw the combined 14,000 acres of the Zook and Buffalo creek WSAs released from wilderness consideration. An additional 15,000 acres on two WSAs near the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge will be reviewed for oil and natural gas potential within the next five years. That's where the delegation found "common ground," Daines says. While the Zook and Buffalo creeks were deemed by the Bureau of Land Management as not suitable for wilderness designation in a 1985 resource management plan, their inclusion in the public lands package—and the perceived lack of transparency in those negotiations—quickly drew criticism from conservation groups including Wilderness Watch, the WildWest Institute and Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
"There are lots of deserving BLM WSAs in eastern Montana that should become wilderness," says Peter Aengst, Montana director for the Wilderness Society. "I don't think these two are really on that list. Having said that, we want to have transparent processes, and this was not. You can't deny that this was done through negotiations that went on between our senator and congressman."
The study area releases aren't the only provisions in the public lands package driving controversy. One measure from southeast Arizona transfers ownership of 2,400 acres of land containing sacred Apache sites to a foreign copper mining company. Another would give 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to a Native-owned logging company. Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, says her group has long opposed the Northern Cheyenne Land Conveyance Act now contained in the package, not because they're against returning coal to the tribe but because the trade-off is giving land near Bull Mountain to coal company Great Northern Properties.
"The breadth of this was staggering and offensive," Hedges says of the package, "and I think the method used to develop this grand plan, it shows everything that's wrong with Congress. They're incapable of doing things in the light of day."
Tester and Daines argue that, comparatively, Montana gained a lot through the rider. The Heritage Act not only includes 67,000 acres of new wilderness but 208,000 additional acres of conservation management area. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act also made it into the package, banning future drilling and mining on more than 383,000 acres along the North Fork of the Flathead River. Tester acknowledges he's "not crazy about the release of wilderness study areas," but adds Daines "wasn't crazy about the Heritage Act" either.
"You're correct, the wilderness study area had not been talked about much," Tester says. "But you have a choice, and the choice is you take a look at the package and say, 'Does it move forward?' Now we could have gone out and had public hearings on this and talked about it and the window of opportunity would have been over with by the time we got done."
Given time, Daines would have preferred to approach the Heritage Act differently. In fact, he says "there'll be actually some more work left to do on the Heritage Act, even after we come back, to ensure that we've got, I think, all the various stakeholders here represented." As for the review of WSAs, the senator-elect admits he's not done there either.
"If we look at over a million acres of Montana that are in wilderness study areas, which more or less get managed as de facto wilderness today," he says, "I think we need to continue to work towards driving resolution on these lands that are kind of in this in-between status."
This story was updated on Dec. 18.