Bob Marshall Wilderness

The summits of Pyramid, Marshall and Crescent mountains on the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex.

Public positioning has ratcheted up around Montana as its two senators prepare very different wilderness legislation for congressional hearing on Wednesday.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines’ bill to release several wilderness study areas for mechanized use had received letters of support from all but one affected county commission. Wilderness advocates have challenged that support, alleging improper public notice.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act has drawn fire from environmentalists arguing it allows too much trail building for bikes in sensitive areas.

The Granite County Commission meets Tuesday to reconsider a letter the commissioners wrote on Dec. 19 opposing Daines’ Protect Public Use of Public Lands bill. Granite County includes the Sapphire Wilderness Study area, one of five that Daines’ bill would return to regular National Forest status. The commissioners’ Tuesday agenda includes discussion and decision on both the letter and a proposed Wilderness Study Area Advisory Committee.

On Wednesday, the Ravalli County commissioners will have a public hearing on their letter supporting Daines’ bill, after residents charged that there was insufficient public notice of last September’s meeting where the letter was approved. The Ravalli commissioners declared opposition to wilderness designation on both the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSA, which straddles the Montana-Idaho border.

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Daines sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where his S. 2206 will be heard. The bill would release five Wilderness Study Areas totaling 449,500 acres in Montana, including the Big Snowies WSA near Lewistown, the Middle Fork Judith WAS south of Stanford and the West Pioneer WSA east of Wisdom.

At the same hearing, Tester’s S. 507 will have its first review. It would add 79,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas. On Monday, a coalition of environmental groups including Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Rattlesnake, Western Watersheds Project, Swan View Coalition, Montana Sierra Club and Friends of the Bitterroot released an analysis of Tester’s bill which claimed it skipped proper environmental reviews while allowing private groups to build and maintain trails for snowmobiles and bicycles in sensitive wildlife habitat.

Also Monday, Montana Wilderness Association members started rallying support for Tester’s bill and against Daines’.

Both bills appear on Wednesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s public lands subcommittee at 8 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. 

A live broadcast of Wednesday’s hearing can be heard online at energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/live-webcast.