On Nov. 1, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the legislation that has protected some of the most revered places in Montana. They include the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn, West Pioneer, Blue Joint, Sapphire, Ten Lakes, Middle Fork Judith and Big Snowies.
Montana’s great public lands champion Sen. Lee Metcalf introduced this legislation, called the Montana Wilderness Study Act, with the foresight that these wildlands managed by the U.S. Forest Service needed to be protected until the surrounding communities and Congress had the opportunity to consider them for permanent protection. Thanks to this bill, the areas protected, known as “wilderness study areas," have since provided clean water to nearby communities, ensured healthy populations of fish and big game, and allowed for multiple kinds of outdoor recreation that help sustain our economy.
These wild places have come to signify the essence of Montana. It’s almost impossible to imagine our state without them, since they so clearly evoke our outdoor heritage.
Congress has repeatedly tried to find long-term solutions for these areas addressed in Metcalf’s bill. Nine times between 1984 and 2013, legislation was introduced to release some large tracts of wilderness study areas and permanently protect other large tracts. Each of these bills represented a compromise that reflected the input of Montanans across the state. A 1988 bill passed both the House and Senate. Unfortunately, President Reagan chose not to sign it.
Since then, numerous collaborative groups have been working on finding resolution not just for the WSAs managed by the Forest Service, but also for the additional 37 WSAs managed by the Bureau of Land Management, including the Centennial Mountains in southwest Montana, Bitter Creek along the Hi-Line and Terry Badlands in the east, all of which support our unique cultural identity as Montanans and some of the healthiest big-game populations in North America.
We learned just how precious these wildlands are to Montanans during this year’s legislative session in Helena. One of our state’s biggest advocates for transferring and selling off our public lands, Rep. Kerry White, introduced a resolution calling on Congress to lift protection on these wildlands and get the ball rolling on industrializing them.
Montanans’ reaction to White’s resolution was, not surprisingly, swift and furious. HJ 9 was a serious threat to our blue-ribbon streams, wildlife, economy, drinking water, and our outdoor way of life.
Over the following weeks, lawmakers were barraged with thousand of emails and calls from around the state telling them to reject this resolution as it was then written. At a legislative hearing, more than 70 people signed in as opponents of HJ 9, while only 10 signed in as proponents.
This outpouring of opposition compelled Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee to dramatically revise the resolution and add language that asked Congress to, among other management options, consider permanently protecting — as wilderness — the places addressed in the resolution.
As the reaction to HJ 9 made clear, the way to resolving the fate of our WSAs is for our congressional delegation to support local, collaborative efforts focused on each of these areas, not to impose some top-down, one-size-fits all legislation that decides the fate of all of these places in one fell swoop — with little or no opportunity for public input.
After 40 years, Ten Lakes, Blue Joint, Bitter Creek and other wilderness study areas across the state still represent the best of Montana in all its diversity, as do the wildlife, fish, water and outdoor recreation economy that rely on these cherished places. We're calling on our elected officials to handle these places with the respect they deserve. The lifeblood of our state depends on it.