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Sapphire Mountains

In Ravalli County, Sen. Steve Daines' and Congressman Greg Gianforte's  legislation would remove wilderness-like protection on a portion of the 68,860-acre Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area on the west side of the valley and all of the 117,030-acre Sapphire WSA on the east side.

Of all the issues Montanans have expressed opinions on in recent months, the proposals to eliminate 29 Wilderness Study Areas in the state have been a consistently hot topic in letters and guest commentary on the Missoulian’s Opinion page. It’s but one indication of the importance of these public lands to the people of Montana.

An even clearer measure became available last week when a University of Montana initiative released a poll confirming that a majority of those questioned — 57 percent — prefer to keep the WSAs as-is. Roughly one in four think protections should be enhanced in some places and removed in others. And only a scant 11 percent support the changes being promoted in Congress by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

Daines’ bill, introduced in the U.S. Senate in December, would release five areas from wilderness status, a move he says is overdue after more than 35 years.

The year before he died in 1978, Sen. Lee Metcalf requested that Congress consider a number of areas in Montana for new wilderness designation, but in the decades since, Congress has failed to take action. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service recommended that some of these areas be removed from consideration as wilderness. Daines’ bill follows up on that recommendation.

But Gianforte’s legislation in the U.S. House goes far beyond, to include a total of 29 WSAs regardless of their most recent, and perhaps outdated, recommended status.

Daines’ legislation would affect the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs near Hamilton, the Big Snowies WSA near Lewistown, the Middle Fork Judith WSA south of Stanford and the West Pioneer WSA by Wisdom, for a total of about 450,000 acres. Gianforte’s bill includes all those and more, for a total of nearly 700,000 acres currently managed by the Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

If their proposals have done one good thing, it’s that they have moved the state closer to making an actual decision on these long-lingering study areas. Moreover, albeit inadvertently, they appear to have brought Montanans together — in favor of affirming their wilderness status.

It’s a question that has been quietly simmering for some time. During the most recent state legislative session, legislators approved a joint resolution requesting that Congress settle the matter once and for all. They sent a clear message to Montana’s congressional delegates to make this a priority, and Daines and Gianforte can be credited for doing that much.

Unfortunately, they have demonstrated a distinct unwillingness to listen since then. People from all corners of Montana have repeatedly attempted to question them on their legislation and to share important concerns, only to be painted as “environmental extremists” or ignored altogether.

They have not held a single public hearing on this issue. Instead of meeting with regular Montanans in person, they have held numerous “tele town halls” in which a select group of participants may ask pre-screened questions. They have set up meetings with elected officials who have expressed support — and dodged any protestors who show up at public meetings.

Tellingly, Daines’ spokeswoman Breanna Deutch dismissed the UM poll as not credible, alleging that “the authors push polled the phony and misleading arguments promoted by radical environmental groups. The lack of objectivity and fact-checking unfortunately undermines a legitimacy of the effort."

Had anyone from Daines’ office bothered to research the poll, they would have known that it was done by both Republican and Democratic firms commissioned by UM’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative. Indeed, among those polled who identified as Republicans, a full 40 percent said they want Montana’s WSAs left alone and another 34 percent said designations should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps if Daines’ staff were capable of reading the survey with a less biased eye, they would be more open to its conclusions.

The poll is a follow-up of sorts to similar surveys done in 2016 and 2016, and the wording is freely and easily accessible for public review online. Moreover, it represents the views of 500 registered voters in Montana. Do Daines and Gianforte want to hear from these folks, or only from their supporters? They were, after all, elected to represent the interests of all Montanans.

It’s clear all Montanans have a stake in our public lands. From the Antelope Creek WSA in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument to the 53-acre Yellowstone River Island WSA along the Yellowstone River, these places are treasured for their unique ecological, recreational and economic values, among others. They should be independently and individually evaluated on those unique aspects, and the people of Montana deserve the opportunity to participate fully and meaningfully in this evaluation process.

So far, that process has focused only on a select group of supporters. Daines and Gianforte should withdraw their proposed legislation immediately, and launch a campaign to gather real public input instead.

They should call for new studies to determine which Wilderness Study Areas are best suited for release and which are most in need of continued protections. They should call on local residents to share their worries about potential threats to these places, both eminent and far into the future. They should open their ears to critics and supporters alike, and work to bring them both to the same table.

According to the UM survey, 97 percent of respondents consider it important that “a wide range of stakeholders and local communities have the opportunity to provide their input before decisions are made.” That’s a rare level of consensus. That’s a clear point of agreement.

If nothing else, Daines and Gianforte should listen to that.

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