Recently, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines introduced a bill that would strip protection from 450,000 acres of the wildest, most pristine public lands in Montana. He concocted the bill in Washington, D.C., without holding a single public meeting or town hall to find out how Montanans would like these public lands managed in the future.
As outdoor manufacturers and business owners, we make our living by making it comfortable for folks to have a pleasurable experience in their wild backyards, especially the places that Daines would severely diminish with his bill — the West Pioneer, Big Snowies, Blue Joint, Sapphire and Middle Fork Judith wilderness study areas.
Places like these are precisely why each of our businesses is located here, employing many hardworking Montanans. We have a vested interest in these places, because our customers and staff spend a lot of time in them. Without wild places to hunt, fish, backpack, hike, bird watch or camp, our business suffers.
That left us wondering why Daines did not consult with the diverse interests in all of the communities closest to the areas addressed in his bill. He apparently talked to a select groups representing motorized and mining interests, but left out everyday Montanans who hike, hunt, fish, backpack, bird watch, rock climb and ski in these areas — that is, the vast majority of people who use these places.
How Montanans feel about these places was made clear earlier this year when Rep. Kerry White, an advocate for transferring and selling off public lands, introduced a joint resolution in the legislature calling on Congress to release all wilderness study areas in the state. Thousands of Montanans contacted their legislators in opposition to the resolution. At a legislative hearing, more than 70 people signed in as opponents of H.J. 9, while only 10 signed in as proponents, mostly industry representatives. This pressure compelled legislators to amend the resolution so that wilderness designation was included as a potential outcome for resolving the status of these areas.
Daines himself has spent time enjoying wilderness study areas, frequently recounting the story of proposing to his wife on top of Hyalite Peak, which happens to be in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. Daines left this WSA out of his bill.
Like the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn, the West Pioneers and Big Snowies provide vital drinking water to local communities and allow elk herds and trout populations to flourish. These places are also part of the bedrock of our outdoor recreation economy.
Tourists and businesses flock to Montana because of the quality outdoor recreation and wildlife found under the big sky. Without protections for these lands — and the public process that allows each of us to have a say in how our lands are managed — we open Montana up to a host of risks that could undermine the largest sector of our economy, the $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy.
Montana is one of the few remaining states that still boasts of high-quality wildland experiences; we recruit and retain high-quality employees and businesses because of that fact. If our public lands and public process is compromised, Main Street Montana suffers.
We all agree that it’s time to find resolution to wilderness study areas across Montana. But Montanans — and our economy — deserve to be a part of the solution for these lands. We urge Senator Daines to abandon this divisive legislation, and begin engaging with all Montanans, not a tiny minority.