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Seven Blackfoot WSA

A cave hollowed out of the clay soil provided some shade on a hot June day in the Seven Blackfoot Wilderness Study Area, one of 24 recommended for de-listing by the Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.

BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette

Montana's two Republican lawmakers have been taking persistent heat over never holding public hearings before introducing their respective legislation that would release wilderness study areas.

“This all comes down to values,” said Andrew McKean, a Glasgow journalist and former editor of the national magazine Outdoor Life, at a recent panel discussion in Billings. “Collaboration is the only way to articulate those sets of values.”

Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have been steadfast in their contention that due diligence has already been done and federal action to release the study areas has been delayed too long. That's despite the steady drumbeat of opposition, use of the subject for Democratic campaign purposes and recent polls showing strong support among Montana residents for protecting public lands.

"It is outright false to claim there has not been public input," said Breanna Deutsch, a Daines spokesman, pointing to public hearings held during related forest or travel management planning that took place from two to 20 years ago.

At issue

Daines authored legislation in December to remove protections for five Forest Service wilderness study areas in Montana that total about 449,500 acres. The lands are contained in the Middle Fork Judith/Big Snowies, Blue Joint/Sapphire, and West Pioneer WSAs.

“The Montana Legislature, county commissioners, outdoor recreationists and Montana families have asked me to do what Congress should have done decades ago," Daines said in an email. 

Gianforte's bill, introduced in the U.S. House in March, includes the Forest WSAs from Daines' bill and adds 24 Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas that include another 240,000 acres. The BLM acreage stretches from the 7,800-acre Axolotl Lakes WSA outside Ennis to northeastern Montana’s 59,600-acre Bitter Creek WSA, southeastern Montana’s 44,900-acre Terry Badlands and nine study areas along the Missouri River Breaks ranging from Fort Benton east to Glasgow totaling more than 71,000 acres.

“Two principles guide me with public lands issues," Gianforte said in an email. "One, it must protect or increase public access. Two, it must have support from local communities. Legislation I introduced will restore public lands, which BLM and the Forest Service found non-wilderness or partial non-wilderness, to the land management agencies and increase public access."

Gianforte said in April he was listening to public comment when introducing his bill, just as he had when supporting the removal of federal lands in the Paradise Valley from mining and protection of a portion of the East Rosebud River as wild and scenic.

That comparison was “a little disingenuous,” said Erica Lighthiser, a member of the Livingston-based Park County Environmental Council, which has lobbied to protect the Absaroka Mountains from mining.

Lots of people were engaged in the East Rosebud and Paradise Valley issues, she said, not so with the WSAs.

"I can’t emphasize enough how much public input has been received and is guaranteed through this process, should the bills be enacted," Travis Hall, a Gianforte spokesman, wrote in an email. "Greg’s bills release WSAs from their outdated designation and restore them to USFS and BLM management. Under agency management, the lands are then subject to the resource management plan (RMP) process that USFS and BLM use to solicit and receive public input and determine use, including possible restrictions."

Politics

Both Gianforte and Daines have referenced the Montana Legislature's support for delisting the WSAs. The joint resolution the Republican-dominated 2017 Montana Legislature passed was a nearly perfect 60-40 party line vote

" ... The areas in the Senator’s bill, which were passed by the state legislature, were not recommended by the Forest Service for wilderness," Deutsch wrote. "So to be clear, none of the lands that are included in the senator’s bill are actually recommended as wilderness by the Forest Service. These are not wilderness areas."

Daines' email included a list of supporters, such as the Fergus and Judith Basin county commissioners, in addition to motorized recreation groups, one mountain biking club and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, or MOGA.

“MOGA strongly supports access for all user groups and sound management of our public lands," said Mac Minard, executive director of MOGA, in a statement. "Ensuring these areas are removed from a management directive that is not compatible with what the Forest Service studies concluded nearly 40 years ago will allow a new process to determine future management of these areas.”

Lighthiser took issue with the suggestion that the WSAs lock out visitors. Gianforte's bill is titled the Unlocking Public Lands Act.

"You can walk into any of them," she said.

Daines sees the WSA designation as keeping out other users.  

"That’s why I introduced a bill to unlock our lands so they can be enjoyed by snowmobilers, mountain bikers, veterans, the elderly and many more,” he stated in his email.

Democrats are making full use of the dispute over Daines' and Gianforte's legislation to seek political capital. John Heenan, a Billings attorney running in the Democratic primary, organized the panel talk at which Lighthiser and McKean spoke to a crowd of about 25 people. Should he win, Heenan would take on Gianforte for Montana's lone U.S. House seat. 

The gathering was recorded and will be typed up so the information can be passed on to Gianforte, Daines and other politicians. Although not an overt political stumping with campaign banners or a speech by Heenan, the underlying message was clearly a slap at Gianforte and Daines.

"We've shown what can be possible and what we should expect, and in fact demand," Heenan said. "Thanks for showing up. Democracy is a participatory sport."

Rising tide

In an April letter to Daines and Gianforte, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, added his voice to the chorus of calls for public meetings on the WSAs. His statement was delivered with another letter signed by more than 2,000 Montanans and 100 businesses gathered by the group Our Land, Our Legacy.

At the same time, a February poll sponsored by the Montana Wildlife Federation and conducted by Public Policy Polling showed a majority of the 500 people surveyed supported a collaborative approach that included in-person town hall meetings with Daines and Gianforte.

Then last week, another poll of 500 residents commissioned by the University of Montana's Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative likewise found that even among Republicans, "22 percent supported elimination of protections while 40 percent wanted the protections left in place and 34 percent wanted case-by-case reviews," according to a Missoulian news story. "Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly opposed eliminating WSA protections." Daines and Gianforte dismissed the poll.

“I think it really needs to be on a case-by-case basis,” said panelist Ali Knapp, president of Bozeman-based Wisetail LMS software.

Knapp said access to public lands in Montana is “a huge attraction to the talent we bring to the company” and helps retain those who do become employees.

Justin Schaaf, a Fort Peck resident, noted that the one business in his town is a motel.

“No one is coming to shop,” he said.

Instead they arrive to fish on Fort Peck Reservoir or the Missouri River or to hunt on surrounding public lands.

“We aren’t putting as much value in our public lands as they are putting into our economy,” Lighthiser said.

All of the panelists advocated collaborative solutions to issues like the removal of protections for wilderness study areas.

“I think we need to consider opposing viewpoints,” Lighthiser said.

Such processes can be slow, challenging and frustrating and in the end no one gets everything they want. But McKean said that it’s “not Montanan” to make decisions without collaborating.

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