Resolving wilderness study areas requires working together
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Resolving wilderness study areas requires working together

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A mountain biker, logger, wilderness advocate and dirt biker walked into Montana’s Capitol. It sounds like the start of a bad joke.

And yet, in January, we traveled to Helena at the request of the Montana Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council to deliver a shared message: Working together is the best way to develop long-term management solutions for Montana’s wilderness study areas. (WSAs).

For 40 years, WSAs like the Big Snowies, Sapphires and West Pioneers have lingered in what was supposed to be a temporary status, waiting for Congress to decide the future of these treasured public lands. Would they be designated wilderness? Or designated as something else? Or released from protection altogether? Through the '80s and '90s, competing interests waited for their favored political party to gain control and ensure Congress would pass a bill giving them everything they wanted.

The result: No solution and Montana’s WSAs are still in limbo.

Montanans are looking for a different approach to deciding the future management of these lands — one that brings people together and seeks common ground. One that leads to durable solutions and builds broad, robust coalitions of champions for proposals that meet a variety of interests.

From our experience, collaboration is the tool that can produce these outcomes for WSAs.

The power of a collaborative process rests in bringing Montanans with direct, deep knowledge of these landscapes together to learn about each other’s perspectives, values and interests, acknowledging that they are all legitimate. This dialogue invariably uncovers shared values and expands everyone’s ability to identify the appropriate blend of forest management, recreation, conservation and economic development. Folks who were once on opposite sides of an issue often become advocates for each other’s interests and together build widespread public buy-in for the solutions they’ve developed.

Collaboration isn’t easy. None of this happens without some late nights, bruised feelings and challenging conversations. We have to rely on others — whether federal agencies or elected leaders — to implement our results since we aren’t the decision-makers when it comes to public lands. The outcomes, however, are well worth the heartache.

Collaboration is working across the state. The U.S. Forest Service is making better decisions and getting more accomplished with more public support. Mountain bikers, snowmobilers and timber workers are going to bat for additional wilderness. Wilderness and conservation advocates are defending new mountain bike access and motorized trails.

From the Lincoln Valley to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Gallatin Range, Montanans from varied perspectives are rolling up their sleeves, listening to and learning from their neighbors in order to develop agreements that include something that makes their lives a little bit better. Everyone is able and willing to defend the outcome.

Which is why we need our elected leaders to endorse and advance broadly supported proposals developed through collaboration, even though there may be opposition from the margins.

Collaboration on WSAs must begin with a commitment from Montana’s congressional delegation to support collaborative efforts that find true solutions and offer balanced recommendations that transcend partisan politics to meet the wide-ranging interests Montanans have in public lands.

If the Environmental Quality Council wants to help find long-lasting, broadly supported results for WSAs, the most important thing it can do is support collaboration as a means to resolve the longstanding issues surrounding these landscapes. If the EQC (and the full Montana Legislature) support a collaborative approach to determining the future of Montana’s WSAs, it would send a powerful and persuasive message to our congressional delegation.

And inspire Montanans to continue the hard work of finding common ground about the landscapes we all hold dear.

Ben Horan is the executive director of MTB Missoula, Russ Ehnes is a board member of Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, Tony Colter is the vice president of Sun Mountain Lumber, and Barb Cestero is the senior regional representative for The Wilderness Society.

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