The Democratic and Republican candidates for Montana’s U.S. House seat both held roundtable discussions about Wilderness Study Areas Wednesday.
Kathleen Williams, the Democratic challenger, hosted hers at the University of Montana, and her campaign's Facebook page shared a link to a Facebook Live stream.
"There have not been a lot of opportunities that I have heard of for people to come and share their perspective on Wilderness Study Areas, so we wanted to provide that opportunity, and I want to thank you all for coming," Williams said.
Earlier this year the Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation proposed new legislation to remove Wilderness Study Area designation from nearly 700,000 acres in more than two dozen locations in Montana.
Critics, including the Montana Wilderness Association complained that the bills were drafted without giving the public a chance to chime in on them. Senator Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte said their bills were backed by local county commissioners.
About 80 people came to Williams’ event in Missoula yesterday, from as far away as Bozeman and Wise River. After a panel discussion with six men representing perspectives that included motorized recreation, hunting and fishing, and wilderness preservation, Williams asked audience members to speak.
"Anyone here favoring the release of the Wilderness Study Areas? OK, so let’s get some of those perspectives …"
About a dozen members of the public advocated for positions ranging from immediate release of all Wilderness Study Areas to less restrictive management to maintaining the status quo.
At the Gianforte event in Lewistown, the Montana Wilderness Association’s Amy Robinson was one of 14 panelists, and says her organization welcomed the invitation to participate from the Congressman.
"We accepted the invitation because we’ve been asking for an opportunity to share what Montanans think about these bills, and so this was an opportunity to have that discussion directly with the Congressman, as well as with other groups that were invited across the state.," Robinson said.
Congressman Gianforte declined an interview request from Montana Public Radio, but did provide three audio clips, which we’ll play in their entirety.
"As you know Montanans feel really strongly about our public lands, these are critical to our way of life. I want to thank all of you for being here, it’s really a testament to how much we care about our public lands that we have this level of interest. I’m looking forward to hearing everybody’s comments, and I’m here to listen today.," Gianforte said.
The congressman characterized his WSA bills as moderate.
"There are many proposals about what to do with these WSAs, from one position – to release all of them, and another that would make them all wilderness. The legislation that I proposed doesn’t really represent either extreme. It’s really down the middle, and I want to hear how this legislation can be improved," Gianforte said.
Gianforte’s staff says Wednesday’s event in Lewistown was a public meeting. The Montana Wilderness Association’s Amy Robinson says that that was not her impression. She says a “handful” of members of the public did attend after asking to join the event, and were given an opportunity to speak at the end of the 90 minute meeting.
I asked her what message she took away from Congressman Gianforte at the meeting, and she echoed this soundbite his staff sent us.
* "As we look at public lands issues," Gianforte said, "there’s really three things that are critical. One: Public lands must stay in public hands. Secondly: I’ve heard from Montanans we’ve got to increase and maintain public access to our public lands. And then thirdly, what we’re doing here today, local community input is paramount. We’re gonna trust the local communities for the direction forward."
Robinson says the Wilderness Association would like Congressman Gianforte to hold a series of public meetings to take more public input on Wilderness Study Areas.
Back in Missoula, I asked Gianforte’s Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams what she learned at her event.
"That civil discussion on important issues that people care a lot about is possible," she said. "We had a great discussion about how people feel about Wilderness Study Areas, and I learned the diversity of how and why people care about them. I think everyone benefits from hearing everyone else’s perspectives, and I think that happened as well. So, I am an absolute fan of getting people together and and having a discussion about policy proposals and policy needs and how we manage our federal land."
Williams says she opposes the Wilderness Study legislation Congressman Gianforte has proposed.
Willams roundtable part 1:
*Update: This post has been updated to clarify that this statement is from Rep. Gianforte. A copy error in an earlier version of the story made it unclear who was being quoted.