Devil's Glen Dearborn River

The Devil's Glen area near the headwaters of the Dearborn River will receive federal wilderness designation as part of a package of Montana land bills included in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Years of legislative wrangling squeezed down to hours of last-minute negotiating to get a bundle of Montana land bills into the National Defense Authorization Act last week.

“We were not sure what was going to be in the package until 11 p.m. Tuesday night,” Rep. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said Friday. “There’s a lot of pieces in that package. It was late in the game before we could see what was going on.”

For Montana Democratic senators Jon Tester and John Walsh, the legislative work started in October. But the final horse-trading took place just days before all three members of the congressional delegation stood together to announce their achievement on Wednesday.

And even after they shook hands, other national forces threatened to pull the omnibus apart before it can reach President Barack Obama's desk.

“There are folks here that are still playing games,” Tester said Friday. “But we hope we can get this across the finish line.”

The National Defense Authorization Act authorizes $495.6 billion in Pentagon discretionary spending and $63.7 billion in overseas contingency operations. Those dollars go to things like developing the F-35 fighter jet, maintaining nuclear weapons, operating aircraft carriers and paying military personnel.

That makes it “must-pass” legislation. Tester said two months ago, a group of Western state senators decided to combine all the public land management bills that had relatively wide support and amend the package to something that had to pass in the last days of the session.

The defense authorization act was the chosen pony.

The 70 smaller bills represent the most significant public lands management progress since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

They include about 250,000 acres of new wilderness designations and protection of other lands from energy development. The measures also open thousands of acres to logging in Alaska and swap some federal lands for new mining operations.

Eight Montana bills are in the package.

They include the North Fork Preservation Act, which former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., worked on for nearly 40 years and which remove 400,000 acres of the North Fork of the Flathead River from energy mining.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would add about 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, along with 208,000 acres of conservation management areas and a new noxious weed control program – while releasing or reassessing about 29,000 acres of wilderness study areas in eastern Montana.

The legislation also resolves a 114-year-old land dispute on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, which Daines said would open up 112 million tons of coal fields for the Signal Peak mining operation based at Roundup. It also stabilizes the cabin fee pricing system on federal lands, allows a Bureau of Land Management energy exploration permit process to become permanent, extends the East Bench Irrigation District’s water contract for six years, and allows building hydropower systems on Bureau of Reclamation ditches and canals.

“A package like this can carry some stuff, but not too much,” said Spencer Gray, Sen. Walsh’s legislative director. “A state delegation couldn’t come up with a hair-brained scheme that the committees weren’t going to sign off on. So the bills at the front of the line were the ones around the longest, those with some type of formal process completed that was more than just a hearing.”

***

The package is almost as interesting for what didn’t get in as for what did. Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act didn’t make it, although it earned bipartisan committee passage in the Senate.

In the end, Tester decided it was better to get other Montana legislation moving than blow the whole deal on one controversial bill. 

“There were too many people objecting to Forest Jobs on the Republican side of the Senate to get it in,” Tester said. “Part of it is the place-based management – we’re asking the Forest Service to manage in a little different way, and that gives some heartburn to some folks. And there were a lot of folks that did not see the value of wilderness.”

But beyond the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., didn’t get his O&C Land Grant Act included, and he was the past chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., was chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. His Restoring Healthy Forests For Healthy Communities Act changing nationwide timber harvest quotas didn’t make it either. 

Gray was also Baucus’ legislative staffer before Baucus retired and became the U.S. ambassador to China. He recalled years of going around Senate offices with rolls of maps, showing other members and their staffs how the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage and North Fork Protection acts would work. He said Baucus didn’t try to get those bills a committee mark-up before he’d secured support beforehand.

“When Walsh got to the Senate, he put his name on both bills,” Gray said. “He went around to the leadership and said, ‘I know I haven’t been here long, but these are top priorities for my constituents. I want to see them through the chamber on whatever vehicle is possible.' ”

Daines had withheld his opinion on the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act through last week. When the Senate package came over to the House, he made a counter-proposal.

“I was trying to find a balance between protecting the Rocky Mountain Front and looking at land that should not be wilderness study areas,” Daines said. “Finding something that could be taken out – that was the common ground.”

The result was removal of two parcels of Bureau of Land Management wilderness study area and the reassessment of two more. The 14,000 acres of released lands are at Buffalo Creek just north of the Wyoming border near Broadus and Zook Creek just south of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. 

The parcels to be reassessed for oil and gas potential are about 15,000 acres at Musselshell Breaks and Bridge Coulee, both just south of the U-L Bend portion of the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. Those reviews must take place within five years, and Congress must reconsider their wilderness study area status if energy potential is discovered.

Daines’ spokeswoman Alee Lockman said Daines requested more WSAs be released, but those four parcels were the only ones all parties could agree on. The Bureau of Land Management had downgraded all four parcels in the 1980s as not qualified for wilderness designation.

“The release language was part of the give-and-take to get the Rocky Mountain Front bill in,” Tester said. “We were able to negotiate those acreages out for the purpose of getting other stuff in.”

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