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Wuerthner camp

Wilderness and wildlife define the character of Montana. If you were to ask people what comes to mind when you mention Montana, they are likely to say Glacier or Yellowstone national park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, charismatic wildlife like grizzlies and wolves, and trout streams like the Upper Yellowstone or Madison rivers.

So it is beyond comprehension why U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte would seek to strip Wilderness Study Area (WSA) status from nearly 800,000 acres of Montana’s most enchanting landscapes. Not only is this going to harm Montana’s economy, but it will reduce the special features that make Montana unique: its wild country.

These lands are the heart and soul of Montana. Places like the Big Snowies WSA by Lewistown, Blue Joint WSA by Darby, Sapphire Mountains WSA near Missoula, Middle Fork WSA by Great Falls, Terry Badlands WSA by Terry, Pryor Mountains WSA south of Billings, Bitter Creek WSA by Glasgow, Cow Creek WSA by Fort Benton, Ruby Mountains WSA by Dillon, Humbug Spires WSA by Butte, among others. Indeed, nearly every Montana community has a WSA in the neighborhood.

These places represent the best features of Montana and if you live near any of these places, you understand how fortunate you are.

Numerous studies have documented that counties with protected landscapes tend to have higher employment, higher wages and overall better infrastructure than similar counties without such landscapes.

It’s well established that people choose to live in places with opportunities to visit protected areas. Footloose individuals move to communities near protected landscapes, bringing with them income earned elsewhere but spending it locally.

But it goes beyond economics or whether someone uses these places. These wildlands become part of the local identity. People like to know such untrammeled places exist even if they only go to the edge and gaze upon the beautiful landscapes. They are places where we look out on an expanse of undeveloped land and breath in the spaciousness.

Protecting wilderness is one of the “best” attributes of humanity. It demonstrates a respect for all life, and a willingness to share the Earth with others. Wilderness designation is also the "gold standard" for conservation. There is no better way to preserve wild nature.

The worst aspect of Daines and Gianforte's proposed legislation is that it was developed without any significant public input. At the very least, Montanans should be permitted to speak about the love they have for these landscapes.

Montanans have a chance to demonstrate our own best character defined by restraint and humility by supporting the continued protection of these lands as wild places. Hopefully, Daines and Gianforte will listen.

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George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books, including "Protecting the Wild: Parks and Wilderness as the Foundation for Conservation."

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