For decades, Montanans have sought a path towards resolving the management of more than a half-million acres of public lands designated as wilderness study areas (WSAs). These are places so special that Congress set them aside in 1977 until it had time to decide what their fate should be. The fate of some of these WSAs has been resolved, others not.
On June 26, a legislative committee will begin examining what to do with Montana’s WSAs as a result of a study resolution passed by the 2019 Montana Legislature. Some of our state’s most beloved public lands are at stake.
Two years ago, despite significant public opposition, the Legislature passed a partisan resolution calling on Congress to remove all existing protections for several remaining WSAs across the state, which would open these areas to industrial development. Sen. Daines quickly jumped on board and, with virtually no public outreach or stakeholder involvement, introduced top-down legislation unilaterally stripping away protections for places like the Sapphire Mountains, Big Snowies, and West Pioneers.
As Montanans learned that Daines was proposing to open their favorite hunting, fishing and hiking spots to mining and drilling, the response was predictably swift. Within a few months, thousands of Montanans called Daines’ office, submitted op eds and letters to the editor, and signed an open letter calling for a much different approach to resolving our WSAs.
A public opinion poll found that only 11% of Montanans supported Daines’ bill. The legislation died without receiving a single vote.
As the opposition to Daines’ bill showed, Montanans want a much different approach, one that brings people together and seeks a middle ground. So, the Legislature weighed in again, establishing a committee to study WSAs in Montana managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The committee will hear from stakeholders, public agencies and the public, then report its findings and conclusions to the entire Legislature in September 2020.
This new approach is laudable. The Legislature is attempting to provide a forum that brings Montanans together to develop a permanent solution to WSA management, a solution that the public and key stakeholders can support.
Of course, the Montana Legislature is the wrong body to conduct such a study. It has no more say on federal land management than any other Montanans do. Only Congress can make decisions regarding our WSAs, which means that any resolution proposed by the state Legislature will need to gain the support of Montana’s entire Congressional delegation — something that’s within reach.
For the committee to have any chance of gaining the support of Montanans and our Congressional delegation, we believe that it needs to:
- Begin with a commitment to finding true, bipartisan solutions.
- Include all interests that have a stake in public lands, including those that the legislators disagree with.
- Seek a publicly supported middle ground.
- Offer recommendations for our WSAs that reflect that public lands are the backbone of Montana’s outdoor heritage, source of clean drinking water and critical habitat for fish and wildlife.
Finally, the committee needs to recognize the history of collaborative dialogue in Montana, as well as local efforts that seek compromise. For the past decade, Montanans of all stripes have worked together to find solutions for public land management challenges. Collaborative groups such as the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition and Gallatin Forest Partnership are forging proposals that work for a wide range of stakeholders and deserve the Legislature’s recognition and support.
Politics is the art of working together, seeking compromise, and proposing "win-win" solutions. The new legislative committee has the opportunity to help find a path forward on Montana’s treasured public lands. We hope the legislature is up to the task. We know Montanans are.