HELENA – Montana’s congressional delegation Wednesday unveiled a sweeping public lands package they hope will clear the current Congress in its waning days, including Montana’s first additional wilderness designation in 31 years.
The 67,000 acres of proposed new wilderness is on the Rocky Mountain Front, adjoining the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, but it’s far from the only piece in the diverse package of public land initiatives.
It also includes a ban on mineral development near the North Fork of the Flathead River, extension of grazing permits on federal lands, allowing hydropower development on several irrigation canals and accelerated permitting of oil and gas exploration in eastern Montana.
All three members of Montana’s delegation – Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines – praised the package as an example of bipartisan cooperation and compromise.
“The entire Montana delegation has come to an agreement on a lands package that will not only preserve some our most treasured places, but it will also empower the Montana economy,” Tester told reporters on a teleconference call. “This is the type of cooperation that our constituents want from us and deserve from us.”
Tester, Daines and Walsh said the package, made final late Tuesday night, has been inserted into a must-pass defense budget bill on which Congress will vote in the coming days.
Walsh said the delegation got together to discuss where they could compromise, took the plan to congressional leaders and got them to agree on it.
“We knew this was something we could accomplish,” he said. “This is a historic day for the state of Montana.”
“Montanans were very clear (during the campaign) in voicing their concerns about the partisan gridlock in Washington,” added Daines, who was elected in November to succeed Walsh as U.S. senator in January. “It’s important that we find common ground.”
Many conservationists across the state hailed the agreement for protecting the North Fork and parts of the Rocky Mountain Front.
“It’s an effort by many, many people to protect this wonderful landscape,” Gerry Jennings of the Montana Wilderness Association said of the Front protections. “It’s not just for Montana, it’s for the entire country. It would be a huge victory for Montanans and our outdoor heritage.”
Others, however, noted that the package, both in Montana and nationally, makes many concessions to various industries and trades away public lands, such as transferring part of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to a logging firm.
“There are a lot of very bad provisions in the bill that far outweigh any good that’s in it,” said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch in Missoula. “A lot of this stuff would never pass if it wasn’t passed as a rider to a must-pass defense appropriations bill.”
The Montana package includes a collection of bills and proposals that Montana’s delegation has been working on for months and years:
• The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which adds the 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwestern Montana and designates 208,000 acres along the front as a conservation management area, stretching from the Badger-Two Medicine to south of Augusta.
• The release of 14,000 acres of wilderness study areas in southeast Montana, near Lame Deer and Broadus, for regular management by the Bureau of Land Management.
• A new assessment of oil and gas development potential in two wilderness study areas near the Charles N. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, south of Glasgow.
• The North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which bars future mining or drilling on 430,000 acres of public land directly west of Glacier National Park.
• A restoration of mineral rights to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe on 5,000 acres containing coal deposits within the reservation in southeast Montana.
• The Grazing Improvement Act, which extends the life of grazing permits on federal lands from 10 to 20 years.
• Removing a law that prevents irrigation districts, including ones near Missoula, Malta, Glendive and Miles City, from developing hydropower on Bureau of Reclamation ditches and canals.
• Establishing a fair, predictable system of setting fees for 700 cabin owners on U.S. Forest Service land.
• Authorization to extend the federal water contract supplying the East Bench Irrigation District, near Dillon.
• Making permanent a pilot project at the BLM field office in Miles City, allowing it to keep fees from oil and gas permits that can hire more staff to process permits more quickly.
Tester called the agreement a historic accomplishment that shows how Congress is supposed to work, to get things done that people want.
“None of us came to Washington to sit on our hands and obstruct,” he said. “We came to make this country a better place for our kids and our grandkids ... and this bill certainly does that.”