Like many Montanans, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time in the Big Snowies. We’ve taken our children and their friends hiking, camping and backpacking there.

And when we can no longer hike or snowshoe up there, we will take great pleasure knowing that our children and their children can have the same experience.

The Big Snowies is one of five wilderness study areas that would lose their protection as a result of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ bill, S. 2206. That bill would remove protection from nearly a half-million of our wildest, most pristine public lands.

I like Steve Daines, and I voted for him. But this WSA bill was a complete surprise and a real disappointment.

It was a surprise for two reasons.

First, Daines invited no public input into his proposal. I sit on the Lewistown City Commission. Our municipal water supply comes from the aquifer that comes from the Snowies. Water is the lifeblood of our community, and we have some of the best water in the world. And it’s because of the Snowies.

I am really surprised Daines never visited with the people of Lewistown about this bill. If he had, he would have received a lot of input.

And one of the things he would have heard about was the overwhelming response of the community — liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat — when an open-pit copper mine was being discussed and explored in the Snowies in the 1980s. No one was in favor of it; the WSA status was a factor in preventing it.

Second, we’ve had the Big Snowies WSA for more than 40 years. I am pretty plugged into the community, and there has been no public issue with the Snowies being managed as a wilderness, no public concerns expressed, no clamor about their WSA status.

It hasn’t been a negative to our community, and it hasn’t hurt our economy. In fact, you could argue that it has helped our local economy. It has been accepted and enjoyed like the untreated, pure water that comes out of our tap. It would appear that perhaps we’ve taken our water quality and the Big Snowies for granted.

I have no idea who Daines has been listening to, unless it’s ATV and motorcycle owners who already can ride over most of the Little Belts and almost all of Fergus County. The WSA has been a non-issue locally, and his bill comes out of the blue.

The Snowies are vital to central Montana from both a quality-of-life and an economic development point of view. Hikers, hunters, anglers, horseback riders, campers, backpackers, photographers, skiers and snowshoers, families and people of all ages can use the Big Snowies WSA. This area, like all Montana WSAs, is not locked up. They are used and enjoyed.

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I spend much of my time now working on economic development issues in Lewistown and central Montana, on trying to retain and bring in jobs. I have the great privilege of working on this with a wide variety of local folks with different political and philosophical opinions but with a shared belief in Lewistown’s future. One thing we hear over and over is that our quality of life is one of our greatest assets from an economic development standpoint.

Our clean water, our environment, our recreational opportunities are all part of that quality of life, and the Snowies is a big part of all of those things. We increasingly understand the importance of the Snowies to the future of our area, and their importance will only grow.

Senator Daines is asking us to risk too much with his bill.

Please see ourlandourlegacy.org for more information.

Dave Byerly is the former publisher of the Lewistown News-Argus and a current Lewistown city commissioner. He stresses that his views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the city commission or any other community group of which he is a member.

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