Protecting some of the nation’s most wild and scenic lands has drawn heated debate in the Montana Legislature this month.
A bill to release seven wilderness study areas from consideration for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System has pitted those who want the lands to be released against those who see the measure as a quick fix.
House Joint Resolution 9 has stirred up discussion among stakeholders since it was introduced to the Natural Resources Committee by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, on Feb. 17. On Feb. 24, the committee took executive action on the partisan resolution and passed an amended version. The resolution will now be scheduled for a hearing on the House floor.
The wilderness study areas include the 151,000-acre West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area west of Dillon, the 61,000-acre Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area in the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho border, the 94,000-acre Sapphire Wilderness Study Area just below the peaks of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the 34,000-acre Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area northeast of Eureka, the 81,000-acre Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area 40 miles southeast of Great Falls, the 91,000-acre Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area south of Lewistown and the 151,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area near Bozeman.
“I just think it’s time after 40 years to release them,” White said. “There were nine when this started. Two were formally designated as Wilderness, and the last seven haven’t been dealt with.”
Jim Brown, representative of Citizens for Balanced Use, said he supports the bill because, “All that’s being asked of this bill is to ask Congress to do its job.”
The areas were designated Wilderness Study Areas in 1977 with the caveat that the areas must be reviewed within five years for their suitability for preservation as wilderness.
But the opponents of the resolution look to the history of the lands in defense of maintaining them as wilderness study areas — for now.
“HJ 9 is a simplistic, quick fix that summarily dismisses some of the best remaining wild lands in Montana,” said Bill Cunningham, former Montana representative for the Wilderness Society. “I know it has been a long time, I don’t question that. We could have got it done in 1988 but they said no, so we’re still working on it.”
This tumultuous history of the wild lands in question doesn’t begin in Montana, but rather can be traced to the 1970 Parker v. United States court case in Colorado. Local landowners and conservation groups battled the U.S. Forest Service, which sought to sell timber from the East Meadow Creek area of White River National Forest. The Forest Service lost the case and as a result, they were required to conduct a nationwide inventory of all road-less areas.
When the study was completed in the early 1970s, the Forest Service specified which lands would be wilderness study areas and released the rest.
“In Montana, many were simply left out and not deemed to be new study areas according to the Forest Service,” Cunningham said. “A grassroots effort took place to convince the Congressional delegation, including junior Sen. Lee Metcalf who was well known to be staunch conservationist, to consider new study areas.”
Concerned Montanans put together a list of 20 areas they felt were inappropriately dropped as wilderness study areas and presented them to Metcalf. Cunningham sat in on that initial meeting with the senator when Metcalf told the group to cut the list down to 10.
“So we came back with our 10, and Metcalf introduced the bill,” Cunningham said. “Our proposed study areas totaled one million acres.”
After three different congressional sessions, Metcalf’s Montana Wilderness Study Act finally passed — but not in its original form. One area, the Elkhorn Unit near Helena, was removed and dealt with separately by Sen. John Melcher in 1976.
The remaining nine areas passed and were signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. The areas included the seven addressed in HJ 9, as well as the Taylor-Hilgard Wilderness Study Area in the Beaverhead and Gallatin national forests and the Mount Henry Wilderness Study Area in the Kootenai National Forest.
“The law said the Forest Service was to review the potential for wilderness, with no sunset or deadline for review,” Cunningham said. “Those initial studies have been completed. Two of the nine areas were released for non-wilderness uses.”
Then, in 1988 Congress passed a statewide wilderness bill to resolve the areas in question in HJ 9. The bill was supported by Melcher and Montana Sen. Max Baucus. The bill was opposed by Conrad Burns, the Republican challenger vying for Melcher’s seat in the Senate.
However, President Ronald Reagan used a pocket veto to kill the bill.
“It was a political decision to help Conrad Burns beat Senator Melcher, which did happen,” Cunningham said. “Maybe that’s a matter of debate. We were so close to resolving the really important question of how to protect last remaining wild lands.”
Additional unsuccessful efforts were made, Cunningham continued. Following their failure in 1988, groups abandoned the idea of coming to a consensus for a statewide bill and instead opted to address each area individually.
Examples of this style of management and designation were successful in the 2014 signature of Baucus’ Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and the 2017 introduction of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act by Sen. Jon Tester.
“The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act didn’t come about overnight, I’ll tell you that,” Gene Sentz, retired teacher and Bob Marshall Wilderness guide, said. “It took just about eight years. We had multiple meetings, local meetings and at least a dozen fairly major public hearings. But by golly, Sen. Baucus carried that bill.”
When Baucus went to China to serve as ambassador, Tester picked up the bill and ran it with then-Rep. Steve Daines. The Republican has since been elected to the senate.
“(Daines) agreed to back us on it because we put so much time and effort on it,” Sentz said. “What it did, it actually designated another 67,000 acres as Wilderness additions to the Bob and Scapegoat, and then 200,000 acres on rest of the Front were designated as a conservation management area. That was a special new designation that was sort of made up just for the Front.”
Sentz said it was exciting to see Tester, a Democrat, and Daines, a Republican, work on passing the bill together because it was bi-partisan and was reminiscent of the relationship he remembered between Burns and Baucus.
Cunningham said he hopes legislators will look to these examples for inspiration and give local organizations and stakeholders a chance to draft ideas to satisfy all parties.
“Individually, the areas can and will be solved at the local level with local collaborative efforts, and the Legislature should respect that,” Cunningham said. “It takes time to do it right, and it’s better to do it right than to ram it through and suffer the consequences later. I think we need to take a deep breath, put this bad resolution aside and get back to work.”
But, White said he is sponsoring the bill because there has been enough time to resolve the issue.
“I am not aware of any formal process underway to bring stakeholders together,” White said. “They can’t come to an agreement. If there’s some collaboration or group currently in the process of figuring out what to do, I am totally unaware of it and would be surprised. I just think it’s time after 40 years to release them.”
HJ 9 has no course of law. Should it pass the House and Senate, it will merely encourage Congress to take action on the wilderness study areas.
Cunningham said he feels that this is a top-down instead of bottom-up approach.
“It’s just a really bad idea,” Cunningham said. “I can understand the frustration that some people might have, but believe me, that’s not the way to do it. We don’t want to release them from the only protection. I’m not saying drag your feet and obstruct things from happening. Let’s make things happen, but do it the right way. I’d like to see local involvement and local stakeholders roll up their sleeves and present their views and listen to others.”
If the lands are released, White said there will still be years of planning that go into their management. All of the areas would have to have a forest plan drafted — a process White said can take between two and three years.
The forest plans would determine areas suitable for timber, grazing, mining and mineral extraction. Through the process, the public would have the opportunity to provide input and suggestions.
White said allegations that the lands would be immediately sold off for mining and oil and gas extraction are “flat untrue.”
“I think environmental groups are trying to stir up their base to get people to write emails and letters,” White said.
Regardless of potential forest management plans and public input, Cunningham maintains his disapproval for a singular approach to the wild lands management.
“HJ 9 is a really, really bad idea because it pulls the rug out from under people at the local level trying to resolve the areas,” Cunningham said. “To come in and summarily release these areas before the collaborative efforts resolve (the issue) is an insult to years of work. It also represents a blanket, knee-jerk reaction against protection of the cream of the crop of our wildest and last best places. They deserve better consideration. We had the 1988 veto and so we still don’t have a comprehensive resolution, but we can get the job done as we have with the Rocky Mountain Front. We need faith in the process that’s underway.”