Sen. Steve Daines blindsided public lands advocates in early December with a proposal to remove 449,500 acres across Montana from wilderness study area designation. Now those advocates are striking back against Daines’ Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, a bill the Montana Wilderness Association describes as the biggest rollback of public lands protections in state history.

The opposition game began last month when MWA drafted letters on behalf of its members to county commissions in Ravalli, Beaverhead, Fergus and Judith Basin counties. Each of those commissions sent letters to Daines last year backing his effort to release WSAs in their counties, though only two — Ravalli and Judith Basin — claim to have held public meetings about drafting the correspondence. MWA’s members warned the commissions that they may have violated state law by failing to hold or provide adequate notice of meetings to garner public input on their support for Daines’ bill.

“We organized this on behalf of our members, who were not given an opportunity to weigh in on the fate of nearly half a million acres of Montana’s wildest and most pristine public lands,” MWA spokesman Ted Brewer says. Brewer adds the goal of the letters was to urge the county commissions to rescind their earlier support, or at least hold open meetings on the issue. Ravalli County subsequently scheduled a meeting for Feb. 7, the same day the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is holding a hearing on the bill. The Beaverhead County Commission’s agenda had the issue slated for discussion on Feb. 5.

MWA and several partners went a step further on Feb. 5, announcing the launch of a collaborative campaign dubbed Our Land, Our Legacy. Over the course of a nearly hour-long press teleconference Monday, advocates repeatedly criticized Daines for ignoring his constituents. Dave Byerly, a Lewistown city commissioner and longtime recreationist in the Big Snowy Mountains Wilderness Study Area, who acknowledged having voted for Daines, said, “I have no idea who Sen. Daines has been listening to. The WSA has been a non-issue locally, and his bill comes out of the blue.”

In rolling out his bill Dec. 7, Daines framed the issue as one of access, claiming that WSA status has prevented Montanans from continuing longstanding family traditions including mountain biking, snowmobiling, motorcycling and ATV-riding. He cited support from the Montana Snowmobile Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, several elected officials and the Bozeman-based Citizens for Balanced Use, founded by state Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman.

“My legislation is not about whether you are for wilderness or against wilderness,” Daines wrote in a letter published by the Great Falls Tribune. “Wilderness areas represent nearly 20 percent of National Forest System lands in Montana and are an important piece of our state’s landscape. But Montanans want to see less restrictions on lands not suitable for wilderness.”

Sen. Jon Tester suggested to High Country News last week that Daines’ bill was put forth to divert attention from Tester’s attempts to ban new mining leases in the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park. In a statement to the Indy Feb. 5, Tester insinuated that there could be an effort to merge Daines’ bill with his own separate legislation designating 79,000 acres of new wilderness in the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys. Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act will be taken up by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Feb. 7.

“Releasing Wilderness Study Areas hundreds of miles away from the Blackfoot-Clearwater Valley makes no sense at all,” Tester said. “Any attempt to conflate a made-in-Montana forest management solution with a blanket removal of Wilderness Study Areas will hold back meaningful collaborative efforts and hurt Montana’s outdoor economy.”

Daines isn’t the first elected official in Montana to suggest releasing wilderness study areas. Rep. White successfully carried a joint resolution through the 2017 Montana Legislature asked Congress to release seven WSAs in the state (all five of the areas in Daines’ bill were on that list). During Monday’s call, Chris Marchion, a Montana Wildlife Federation board member and 2015 inductee into Montana’s Outdoor Hall of Fame, recounted that only a handful of people testified in favor of White’s HJ 9.

“So many other people from various interests, whether they were pro-wilderness or they were just pro-public lands, they thought that was totally the wrong solution,” Marchion said. “But the one thing that HJ 9 requested was that there be a wilderness evaluation, and Sen. Daines has even ignored that requirement.”

Neither is this the first time Daines has proposed lifting WSA status from federal lands in Montana. In late 2014, Daines successfully negotiated with fellow lawmakers for the release of the Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek WSAs (a combined 14,000 acres) in exchange for his support of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which passed as a rider to a spending bill. A number of Montana environmental advocates blasted those releases for lacking public input and transparency.

Now, in the wake of Daines’ latest initiative, MWA and its campaign partners are demanding the public be given a chance to debate the proposal. And they aren’t focusing solely on the WSAs contained in the bill. Miles City-based hiking guide Karen Aspevig Stevenson on Monday described in vivid detail the rectangular sandstone slabs and warbling flocks of sandhill cranes that populate the Terry Badlands WSA in southeastern Montana “You feel its antiquity in your bones,” Stevenson sais. It’s not among the WSAs in the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act. But, as far as MWA conservation director John Todd is concerned, Daines’ bill would set a “dangerous precedent” for the Terry Badlands and Montana’s 43 other wilderness study areas.

“Montanans deserve and expect the opportunity to work together to decide [the WSAs’] fate before Congress acts,” Todd said.

Staff Reporter

Alex Sakariassen began working at the Indy in early 2009. He primarily reports on state politics, the environment and the craft beer industry. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Choteau Acantha and Britain’s Brewery History Journal.

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