A year ago, Sen. Steve Daines introduced legislation that would strip protection from five wilderness study areas (WSAs) comprising 450,000 acres of our most valued public lands. A few months later, Congressman Greg Gianforte upped the ante with a bill mirroring Daines’ and a second bill stripping protection from an additional 24 WSAs that comprise another 400,000 acres of public lands across state.
As we near the end of this Congress, we’re relieved that all three of these bills are dead.
It’s no wonder, given that Daines and Gianforte introduced this legislation without holding a single public meeting or offering Montanans any opportunity to have a say over the future of the WSAs addressed in the bills. These bills epitomized top-down, one-size-fits-all legislation and came as a slap in the face of thousands of Montanans who benefit from, use, and cherish public lands across the state.
Had these bills passed, they would have resulted in the single biggest rollback of protected public lands in Montana history, lands we depend on for clean drinking water, healthy fish and wildlife populations, and our $7 billion outdoor recreation economy.
Over the past year, Montanans expressed their displeasure with these bills in a myriad of ways, including:
• More than 1,000 calls to Daines’ office and more than 800 calls to Gianforte’s office in opposition to their WSA legislation.
• More than 100 op-eds and letters to the editor in Montana’s newspapers in opposition to the legislation.
• Hundreds of people attending county commission meetings in opposition to these bills.
At a Ravalli County Commission meeting in February, around 80 percent of the roughly 200 people at the meeting opposed Daines’ bill. Of the 182 people who attended the Beaverhead County Commission meeting in July, 110 voted against the commission supporting the WSA legislation.
Governor Steve Bullock also chimed in and sent a letter to Daines and Gianforte in April requesting they change their approach to the resolution of our WSAs. “I am particularly troubled by the lack of public engagement used to formulate these [WSA] proposals,” the letter states.
The cities of Whitefish and Helena, Missoula County, and the joint city-county commissions from Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deerlodge also sent letters to Daines and Gianforte expressing concern with the legislation and requesting public meetings.
The most damning indication of how Montanans feel about Daines’ and Gianforte’s legislation came when the University of Montana released its bipartisan 2018 Public Land Survey. It revealed that 81 percent of Montanans across the political spectrum favor keeping WSAs as they are now or taking a tailored approach that adds protection in some areas while removing protections from others. A scant 11 percent expressed support for Daines’ and Gianforte’s legislation.
In April, Daines and Gianforte received an open letter, addressed to the entire Congressional delegation, calling for a balanced, bipartisan, and collaborative approach to our WSAs that includes a diversity of interests. Nearly 2,900 Montanans and more than 100 businesses, organizations, and elected officials have, to date, signed that letter (you can add your signature at ourlandourlegacy.org).
That letter calls on our congressional delegation to adhere to a set of common sense principles in resolving the future of Montana’s WSAs.
A new session of Congress will bring the opportunity for a fresh start. These are the principles we now expect our congressional delegation to adhere to if they wish to craft any future legislation regarding WSAs.
Any WSA legislation should:
• Begin with a clear, bipartisan commitment to getting results in Washington, D.C.
• Be the outcome of a collaborative process that includes and benefits various stakeholders, and not force a one-size-fits-all solution.
• Recognize Montana’s history of collaborative dialogue and legislative compromise.
• Be fair, transparent, inclusive, and fact-based so as to produce outcomes that are implementable and durable.
• Include public input gathered from communities closest to the areas at issue in the proposal, while recognizing these public lands belong to all Americans
We all agree that it’s time to resolve the future of our WSAs. With these principles, Montanans will get the kind of legislation that we, and our public lands, deserve.
- Kathy Hundley, Darby, is a substitute school teacher who rides horses and mules in the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas. Chris Marchion, Anaconda, is a Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame inductee and serves on the Montana Wildlife Federation board of directors. Karen Aspevig Stevenson, Miles City, has led hikes into the Terry Badlands for the last nine years. Andrew McKean, Glasgow, is a former editor of Outdoor Life and a renowned outdoors columnist. All serve as spokespeople for Our Land, Our Legacy (ourlandourlegacy.org).