Opponents of new wilderness gathered at the University of Montana to say Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would provide neither jobs nor recreation.
Although the Friday evening meeting was billed as a "Montana legislative field hearing," it was not an official event of either the Senate or the Montana Legislature. It did attract more than a dozen state legislators, several county commissioners and about 80 other attendees. About 10 land-use groups sponsored the gathering, including the Montana Farm Bureau, Montanans for Multiple Use, and Citizens for Balanced Use.
Fred Grant of Idaho led the meeting. Grant was co-chairman of the Owyhee Initiative Work Group with Wilderness Society regional director Craig Gehrke. President Obama signed the Owyhee Initiative into law March 30, creating 517,000 acres of wilderness and releasing 199,000 acres for multiple use.
"All told, there were about 500 public meetings over eight years on this draft," Grant said of the Idaho bill. "When you hear the word 'collaborative,' that's what it means. Not drafting a bill in secret."
Tester and his staff have frequently challenged allegations they held secret or closed meetings on the Montana bill. The draft S. 1470 bill would create 670,000 acres of new wilderness in three parts of Montana, along with provisions to open other lands to off-road use, logging and forest stewardship projects.
Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy declined to address the renewed secret-meeting charges on the record Friday, but did say the senator planned more open meetings on the bill in the future.
"Jon believes September 11 should be a day free from political stunts," Murphy said. "He looks forward to continuing to discuss the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act with Montanans of all stripes as he has for many months."
Grant also took issue with Tester's absence from the meeting, noting that "We don't stop functioning on the day terrorists struck us." The meeting's head table had a large drawing of Tester propped in a chair by the podium.
About a dozen state legislators and several county commissioners addressed the audience, warning that the bill would not provide promised jobs and would lock people out of public lands.
"I'm basically opposed to every aspect of this bill," Rep. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon said. "It has absolutely no tolerance for multiple use."
Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley blamed the bill's flaws on the "partnership strategy" of environmental, conservation and industry groups that crafted its ideas. That group was too small to represent real community perspective and didn't let in enough outside participation, he said.
McGinley compared the process to Plum Creek Timber Co.'s closed negotiations with Department of Interior officials over the use of cost-share roads, which Tester protested and investigated.
"I beg to ask him, what's the difference," McGinley said. "This was just another special interest group meeting with the Forest Service."
Rep. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, said he fought for and failed to get a trigger provision in the bill that would have delayed wilderness designation until after the affected areas got jobs for 10 years.
"This is not breaking new trail," Vincent said. "This is nothing but a drive-by down the road of good intentions that leads to broken communities."
Speakers from the audience raised a variety of other concerns, including the idea that communist organizations or the United Nations were mobilizing efforts to turn nearly half the United States into closed wilderness areas.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.