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Sapphire Mountains

A woman and her dog enjoy the view of the Bitterroot Valley from a ridge in the Sapphire Mountains. 

Senator Steve Daines recently introduced a bill stripping protection from the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, the West Pioneers, Blue Joint, and the Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) -- nearly a half-million acres of public lands that our fish and wildlife, drinking water, and outdoor recreation economy depend on.

Daines’ bill is called “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act.” That’s just the beginning of the deception Daines is spinning around this bill.

With a name like that on a bill, you’d think the public would have had a say in its creation.

Think again.

Daines didn’t hold a single public meeting before the bill was introduced. He’s been ducking the public ever since (literally out the back door at one meeting in Hamilton).

Take a look at the supporters Daines lists for this bill and you’ll find a find out-of-state and special interests groups pushing for the transfer and sale of public lands (American Farm Bureau) and for privatizing wildlife (Big Game Forever). Then there’s Representative Kerry White, the state’s biggest advocate for transferring and selling off our public lands and a supporter of Cliven Bundy. Do White and others support this legislation because removing WSA status is a good first step toward privatizing public land and wildlife?

The lands addressed in this bill are already open to all Americans. I’ve spent dozens of seasons hunting in the Sapphire WSA. Now that I’m in my 60s, I probably won’t be making too many more trips there. That’s ok, because I want to leave younger hunters the same opportunity I had to hunt in wild quiet places. The protection we’ve given the Sapphire, West Pioneer, and the Blue Joint are the reason these places continue to produce the outdoor experiences I treasure.

Montanans might get locked out of these places if Daines’ bill passes. If that happens, oil, gas, and mining companies would have the opportunity to throw up fences around their operations, shutting out hunters, anglers, hikers, snowmobilers (allowed in many WSAs), and all other public land users.

Another whopper Daines keeps repeating is that Congress has taken no action on WSAs in the 40 years WSAs have been around. It has – eight times.

In the 1980s Congress Pat Williams spent two terms working with Montanans on legislation that would have resolved the fate of most WSAs. Williams’ bill reflected the character and resources of these lands and balanced the interests of Montana’s recreationists and forest-based industries. That legislation would have permanently protected around 2 million acres and removed protection from around 4 million acres.

Sadly, President Reagan pocket vetoed the legislation as a political ploy to help Conrad Burns win a tight election against Senator John Melcher, the Senate sponsor of Williams’ legislation.

Daines is also trying to deceive Montanans by saying his bill is what the Montana legislature asked for in H.J. 9, a resolution that initially called on Congress to remove protection from certain WSAs. Republican legislators were forced to amend the original draft after they were barraged with thousands of calls and emails in opposition to it. At a hearing, more than 70 people signed in as opponents of the resolution. Only ten signed in as proponents, mostly industry representatives. H.J. 9 ended up passing only after legislators added an amendment that includes wilderness designation as an acceptable outcome among many for the WSAs.

A valid solution to the WSAs will only be achieved through transparency and collaboration. If Daines is motivated to lead that process, we are willing to follow. But the process must engage Montanans, not ignore us.

Join me in making that request at

- Montana Outdoor Hall of Famer Chris Marchion, Anaconda, is a longtime leader of the Anaconda Sportsmens’ Club and Montana Wildlife Federation and a representative of Our Land, Our Legacy, a group of Montanans championing the state’s 44 WSAs.