New hope for wilderness in Montana

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: New hope for wilderness in MT

The three members of Montana's congressional delegation are working together, in the final hours of this lame-duck session, to pass legislation that designates important new wilderness acreage and protects places of value to all our lives and livelihoods.

Should this package of eight public land measures be approved, it will be the first time in more than 30 years that a new wilderness area has been designated in our state. Many have tried in the years since, but every proposal has hit an immovable political wall.

Until now.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, both Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, a Republican who was elected to take Walsh's seat in the Senate come January, jointly announced that they have put together a package of public lands legislation, and attached it to the $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act. The U.S. House will vote on the bill sometime this week; the Senate will vote next week. 

The package includes protections for the North Fork of the Flathead River, which Montana's delegation has long agreed upon – and a host of other state, national and Canadian officials endorse – as well as notable new reforms for both energy development and grazing permits. Further, it includes the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would add tens of thousands of acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses. 

“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 said. “This is the type of cooperation that our constituents want from us and deserve from us.”

“Montanans were very clear (during the campaign) in voicing their concerns about the partisan gridlock in Washington,” said Daines. “It’s important that we find common ground.”

Hear, hear – and not a moment too soon. 

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was first introduced on the Senate floor three years ago, after several years of close attention and effort from the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front. This group, as well as Daines, has attended about a dozen public hearings on this one piece of legislation, which was originally proposed in 2009. 

Outfitters, hunters, anglers, hikers, and many others helped shape this bill, which is why it has the support of numerous Montana organizations and individuals, from wilderness groups and private businesses to ranchers - and approval from about 70 percent of the state, according to the most recent statewide poll. 

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act largely guarantees that the Front will remain as it is now. It would prioritize noxious weed management, create a 208,000-acre conservation management area - where motorized use would continue to be allowed - and add 67,000 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. 

Other highlights of the lands package include the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a longtime project of longtime former senator Max Baucus, that would protect 430,000 acres on the North Fork side of Glacier National Park from mineral, oil or gas development; and the Northern Cheyenne Lands Act, which would restore mineral rights on 5,000 acres of coal deposits to the southeast Montana tribe. 

Fifty years ago, the nation welcomed the passage of the Wilderness Act. This is an especially appropriate time for Montana – and our nation – to welcome new wilderness. 

As Montanans eagerly await passage of this substantial legislation, we can thank all three of our congressmen for doing what so many politicians promise to do but never actually accomplish – set politics aside and work together on behalf of the people they represent.