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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Wilderness Bills Get First Senate Hearing

Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project map, Feb. 2018.
Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project map, Feb. 2018.

A U.S. Senate committee heard bills from both of Montana’s senators today. One would add wilderness protection to about 79,000 acres of land here, the other would remove Wilderness Study Area designation for around half a million acres.

Democrat Jon Tester’s bill is called the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.

"This bill was started over 10 years ago, with folks … that worked with their neighbors," Tester said. "They worked with folks from the logging industry, from the environmentalists, from conservation, from recreation, and came to a agreement on a bill."

Tester called it a jobs bill, saying that wilderness and a clean environment play a huge role in attracting visitors to Montana. 

"It increases trail use and recreational opportunities for those who love our outdoors. It strengthens the local timber industry in Western Montana, and maybe most importantly it provides a blueprint for breaking the gridlock that is plaguing our forests," Tester said.

That blueprint – establishing a collaborative where opposing interest groups can work together to find compromise on public lands issues – has been criticized by some environmental groups for bypassing established public processes. But Senator Daines praised that aspect of Tester’s bill at the hearing, although he has not definitively come out as supporting or opposing the bill.

Here’s Senator Daines.

"I know this is an important bill that brings forth truly local collaborative agreement that’s been agreed upon by timber stakeholders, wilderness advocates and outfitters."

Daines’ bill, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, would remove Wilderness Study Area designations for five locations totaling about half a million acres. He told the committee that there’s strong grassroots support for his bill.

"From local elected officials, every single county commission, the Montana State Legislature, as well as recreation, sportsman and other groups, " Daines said.

Earlier this week, people in Fergus, Judith Basin, and Beaverhead counties complained that their county commissioners sent letters of support for Daines’ bill without holding public meetings on it.

Today Ravalli County commissioners held a meeting on the bill. The Ravalli Republic reports that 200 people came, and that comments ran two-to-one against Daines’ bill. The newspaper says Ravalli County commissioners stand behind a letter they sent previously supporting Daines’ bill.

Senator Daines says the Wilderness Study Areas, or WSAs, that his bill addresses were designated as potential wilderness more than 40 years ago, and that since then, the U.S. Forest Service has found them unsuitable for wilderness protection. He brought that point up in an exchange with Forest Service Deputy Chief Glenn Casamassa today.

Wilderness Study Areas proposed for release in the Protect Public Use of Public Lands bill.
Wilderness Study Areas proposed for release in the Protect Public Use of Public Lands bill. See a larger map here: WSA MAP Hearing.pdf

"These WSAs that are proposed for release are not recommended for wilderness. Can you confirm that," Daines asked Casamassa.

"Yes, Senator," Casamassa said, "they have been studied and the recommendation was, through our work that they would be released, or that that would not be considered."

The Montana Wilderness Association, which is sharply critical of Daines’ bill, took issue with that exchange on Twitter during the hearing.

The Association pointed to the latest draft of the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest Plan, dated November, 2016. That draft plan recommends the Big  Snowies Wilderness Study Area for full wilderness protection (pp 55-56). Daines’ bill proposes removing Wilderness Study Area designation for the Big Snowies.

A spokesperson for Senator Daines says that his bill only recommends removing WSA status for areas where final forest plans don’t recommended them for full wilderness protection. The spokesperson says that Daines understands that the Helena Lewis and Clark plan is currently under revision, and that Daines’ bill does not impact that planning process. 

Deputy U.S. Forest Service Chief Glenn Casamassa addressed both Daines’ and Tester’s bills in today’s hearing. He said the Forest Service supports both.

No votes were taken on the bills today. The subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that heard them is keeping the hearing record open for another two weeks to take further comment or get technical revisions. After that, the bills could be revised before moving forward. No further actions on the bills have been scheduled at this time.

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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