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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Two Montana Wilderness Bills Get Senate Hearings Wednesday

A bird's eye view of the southern reaches of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
A bird's eye view of the southern reaches of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Two Montana wilderness bills are getting hearings Wednesday in an important U.S. Senate committee.There’s disagreement over whether they should be linked.

Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and is sponsoring one of the billsit will hear Wednesday. It would remove wilderness study area designations in five Montana places encompassing nearly half-a-million acres.

Democrat Jon Tester is sponsoring the other billthe committee is hearing. His Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act has been in the works for more than a decade. In it, wilderness advocates offer mountain bikers, snowmobilers and the timber industry things they want, in return for adding 79,000 acres to federally designated wilderness in the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains areas.

The Montana Wilderness Association says Senator Daines is, “holding [Tester’s bill] hostage by demanding support of his … bill in return."

A spokesperson for Daines says, “that’s not true.” She says Daines believes, “both bills need to be considered on their own merits … To suggest the Senator said otherwise is emphatically false.”

The Wilderness Association says their perception that Daines won’t support Tester’s bill if Tester doesn’t reciprocate is based on a meeting Blackfoot-Clearwater steering committee members had with Senator Daines in late January.

"That was my takeaway as well, is that he wanted to kind of attach it and do both of them," said Connie Long, who was in the meeting with Daines. She’s co-owner of Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters in Charlo, and part of the collaborative that put together the Blackfoot-Clearwater bill.

So is Jack Rich, a wilderness outfitter and guest ranch owner between Seeley Lake and Ovando. Also in the meeting with Daines, Rich says he wouldn’t characterize what he heard as Daines holding Tester’s bill "hostage."

"I would say that [Daines] wants to find a way to move his WSA release bill forward, and he’s using politics to do it," Rich said, "and of course what he’s doing isn’t uncommon, politicians do it all the time."

Both Rich and Connie Long are urging Senator Daines not to try to pair their bill with his.

I asked Long if she’d be in favor of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship steering committee offering to support Daines' bill in exchange for him supporting support theirs.

"That hasn’t really been talked about at this point," Long said.  "I would probably say no, because we’re really focused on wanting the BCSA to be a stand alone bill, and really would appreciate his support helping us move it forward. I’m not sure where we’re at with him right now on that. But, we basically said that’s not what we want, and we would not do that at this point. We need our bill to move forward."

The areas outlined in red are additions to the Bob Marshall wilderness complex proposed by the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project.
Credit Courtesy Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project
The areas outlined in red are additions to the Bob Marshall wilderness complex proposed by the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project.

Jack Rich says it took years for the sometimes competing interest groups who worked on the Blackfoot-Clearwater bill to come to find what he calls “the sweet spot” they could agree should go to Congress.

"Collaboratives, by their very nature, they’re a dynamic tool," Rich said, "and it’s not something that you can say, 'OK, here, we’ve reached a collaborative agreement, we’ll put it on the shelf for five years and then run it out when the timing’s right.' That isn't how collaboratives work.

"Time is of the essence," Rich said. "And the point I'd try to make to Senator Daines and the rest of the folks back there in the committee meeting is that, time is of the essence, and you either value collaborative efforts or you don't care. And if you don't care, then don't come back to us again and ask us to put forth this effort. If you don't really care what your constituents think, then disregard it. But remember that it comes at a price."

Both Senator Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater bill, and Senator Daines' wilderness study areas bill are being heard by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Wednesday.

You can watch the hearing live on the committee’s website here.

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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