Blue Joint WSA

The Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area is on the Montana/Idaho border in Ravalli County. 

Four Montana counties received letters Monday notifying them that they may have violated Montana’s open meeting laws when they wrote letters in support of removing wilderness study area designations.

The letters are signed by constituents in Beaverhead, Fergus, Judith Basin and Ravalli counties, and ask the commissioners to rescind the correspondence they wrote in support of removing WSA designations.

Three of the four letters state that there “is no record of any noticed public meeting” in which the commissioners decided to send their correspondence. The fourth letter, sent to Ravalli County, states that while a public hearing was held on that county’s proposed letter, it was “poorly publicized and poorly attended,” and didn’t “provide the public with sufficient opportunity to comment as required by the Montana State Constitution and state open meeting laws.”

Ravalli County Commissioners decided Tuesday to hold a second public hearing on Feb. 7 (see accompanying story) and don’t plan on rescinding the correspondence.

Judith Basin Commissioner Jim Moore said they had yet to meet to review the constituents’ letter, so he didn’t know what action the commission might undertake.

In Beaverhead and Fergus counties, commissioners said they’ll also probably hold public meetings to take comments to ensure they’re not in violation of any laws.

Ted Brewer, the communications director for the Montana Wilderness Association, said his organization created the letters on behalf of its members, who felt they didn’t have the opportunity to make their voices heard before the commissions’ correspondence was sent in support of an effort by Sen. Steve Daines.

In December, Daines introduced SB 2206, a bill that would release five Wilderness Study Areas totaling 449,500 acres in Montana, including the Big Snowies WSA near Lewistown in Fergus County; the Middle Fork Judith WSA south of Stanford in Judith Basin County; the Sapphire and the Blue Joint WSAs in Ravalli County; and the West Pioneer WSA east of Wisdom in Beaverhead County.

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“We did this on behalf of our members, who believe they should have a say on how the wildest and most pristine public lands should be managed. They think they’ve been denied that opportunity,” Brewer said.

He noted that when a public hearing was held in Granite County and more than a dozen area residents opposed the bill, the commissioners there decided against writing a letter of support and instead wrote to Daines saying a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t work for Montanans because of the unique character of each wilderness study area.

Beaverhead County Commissioner C. Tom Rice said they’ve discussed the wilderness study areas at countless public meetings during his 12 years as an elected official, and no formal action was taken when they drafted and sent their letter. But he expects they’ll hold a public hearing in the near future where his constituents’ voices can be heard.

Rice said they sent the letter in September, which is before Daines introduced his bill in December, and that they didn’t support the entire piece of legislation — just certain aspects of it.

“Just to satisfy the contingency that’s stirred up the most about it, we’ll have a public meeting, and I’m sure we’ll address more than just Daines’ bill, which is fine,” Rice said. “Whether we pull the letter or not, I don’t know. We may just re-date it; we haven’t made any formal decision. From our viewpoint, there are some issues that need to be addressed in the bill.”

Fergus County Commissioner Ross Butcher said they wrote their letter prior to Daines’ bill being written, and that they just want some movement on the wilderness study areas. They were put up for consideration in 1977, and were to be studied for five years before recommendations were reported to the president.

Instead, “those areas kind of languished in a no-man’s land,” Butcher said. “We felt we needed to come up with some designation, no matter what it was.”

Butcher expects Fergus County also will hold a public meeting within the next month to ensure everyone can weigh in on the topic.