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Senate Passes Montana Public Lands Package Attached To Defense Bill

A trail sign near the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
U.S. Forest Service Northern Region (PD)

The U.S. Senate has approved an expansive bill that adds new wilderness lands in Montana and blocks mining and drilling near Glacier National Park.

The measures were in a defense bill that passed 89 to 11 today.

The bill adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It also allows for a complex coal swap involving the Northern Cheyenne Indians. The tribe will get back 5,000 acres of coal deposits it was wrongly stripped of more than a century ago.

Democratic Senators John Walsh and Jon Tester and Republican Representative Steve Daines put together the package of Montana-related legislation.

Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Senator Tester said the package took years to hammer out.

"For decades, folks in Montana have argued over our lands. We've battled over access, we've fought over resource development, we've sued and counter-sued over logging. But in Montana, we haven't had a new Wilderness designation in 31 years. Why? Because we haven't been able to compromise. But now we have, and it means progress for Montana."

Not all agree. Matthew Kohler with the Missoula-based Wild West Institute says, “the package will mean more taxpayer-subsidized pubic lands grazing, and mining, and oil and gas development with less public input, less protection for wildlife and less science-based management.”

Kohler criticized Montana’s delegation for attaching the package to a Defense bill with, he says, “no public notice or meetings.” Koheler says it gives away more than 100 million tons of coal to a private company in Texas.

Other conservation groups, like Trout Unlimited, praised the bill for protecting the north fork of the Flathead river. The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front in Choteau says it  “celebrates passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act in the Senate today.”

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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