Montana wilderness legislation historic both for its bipartisan support and the long-standing campaigns it completed was signed into law Friday night by President Barack Obama.
Included with other public lands measures as riders to the National Defense Authorization Act, the Montana provisions preserve broad swaths of land in the North Fork of the Flathead and on the Rocky Mountain Front.
The president’s signature came shortly after U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., met with wildland advocates in the North Fork to celebrate their success.
“Today is a victory for Montana and bipartisanship,” Tester said. “The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the North Fork Protection Act and the other Montana lands bills in this historic legislation will preserve special places and outdoors traditions while strengthening our economy.”
Tester and Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., worked with Sen.-elect Steve Daines to include the wilderness designations and six other Montana lands bills in a broader lands package. The legislation passed the Senate last week by a vote of 89-11.
Daines, R-Mont., too, applauded the president’s signing.
“The resources, lands and defense provisions in the NDAA represent years of locally driven, bipartisan work in Montana – and, more importantly, it represents how much we can get done when folks come together and find common ground,” Daines said in a written statement. “This bill ensures that Montana will continue to play a key role in maintaining a strong national defense. It also protects some of our state’s greatest treasures, increases Montanans’ access to our public lands and expands the responsible development of our energy.”
The National Defense Authorization Act allows $585 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.
It also includes a package of 70 public land management bills, the biggest collection since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. They make about 250,000 acres in new wilderness designations and protect other lands from energy development.
Other measures open thousands of acres to logging in Alaska and swap federal lands for new mining operations.
Eight Montana bills are in the package.
They include the North Fork Preservation Act, which protects about 383,000 acres west of Glacier National Park from energy exploration.
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 Northern Cheyenne Lands Act restores mineral rights to 5,000 acres on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and opens up 112 million tons of coal for mining.
The Cabin Fee Act stabilizes cabin rental pricing for about 700 buildings on federal lands.
The Bureau of Reclamation Conduit Hydropower Development Equity and Jobs Act allows creation of hydropower facilities on canals and irrigation projects. The East Bench Irrigation District Act extends the project’s water contract for six years.
Wilderness study areas to be reclassified for multiple use include two Bureau of Land Management parcels at Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Two more BLM parcels will be reassessed for oil and gas potential, involving about 15,000 acres at Mussellshell 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, after which Congress could be asked to remove their wilderness study area status if energy potential is discovered.
The North Fork Protection Act was a legacy of former Montana Sen. Max Baucus, and one he’d been working on for almost 40 years. It completes a transboundary agreement with British Columbia and the Canadian government to protect the entire drainage of the Flathead River from energy development.