Montana Wilderness, RIP

By Beacon Staff

I’ve written extensively about what I call Montana’s Wilderness drought, 26 years and counting without Congress designating one acre of the Big Sky State as Wilderness. Now, Congress seems poised to pass a massive public lands bill, S.3213, a collection of 90 wilderness and watershed protection bills covering almost every state.

For Montana wilderness advocates, it’s another in a long line of no shows. In fact, Montana gets less than zero.

Assuming Congress passes the current bill, and there appears to be a decent bet of this happening, Idaho gets the Owyhee Wilderness Act, a citizen-led, collaborative effort called The Owyhee Initiative that adds 517,000 acres to the Wilderness Preservation System and protects 316 miles of the Wild and Scenic Owyhee River and tributaries.

Through the efforts of the Sportsmen for Copper-Salmon Coalition and other groups, Oregon gets the Copper-Salmon Wilderness Act, which protects one of the last intact watersheds (13,700 acres) on the southern Oregon coast including the Elk River drainage and its famous runs of wild winter steelhead, coho salmon, sea-run cutthroat and fall chinook.

Even The Nation of Wyoming, not normally keen on more federal protection for “their” public land, gets the Wyoming Range protected from energy development – all 1.2 million acres of it – mainly because of the efforts of several sporting groups, most notably the Sportsman for the Wyoming Range and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

And what does Montana get? Well, through the efforts of the Jefferson County Commission, the fourth biggest state gets The Montana Cemetery Act, which gives away a few acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to Jefferson County. I have nothing against Jefferson County taking over the historic Elkhorn Cemetery, but I have to ask, can’t Montana do better than this?

Many of these 90 bills, notably the Oregon and Wyoming bills, have been not only supported by, but also created by, hunting and fishing organizations, not wilderness groups. As I’ve noted in past commentaries, Montana’s wilderness groups are locked in a death grip that prevents progress, but now, I wonder if this isn’t also true with Montana’s hunting and angling groups. One would think Montana’s hunting and fishing tradition is as strong here as Oregon or Wyoming, but all we see is no progress.

So, what’s the problem?

No doubt Montana’s environmental lobby needs new leadership, but is that the root cause of our woeful track record? Probably not.

The real reason for our fast track to nowhere in protecting roadless lands is our congressional delegation. Montana’s Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and our lone congressman, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg have basically shown no interest – if not animosity – in protecting our roadless heritage, but they have been quick to oppose or not support efforts by “outsiders” (i.e. pro-wilderness members of Congress from other states and national green groups) to protect our last blank spots on the Montana map.

There has been background chatter all year about Baucus or Tester introducing a bill based on the controversial Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, which might not be the best choice to try to break the wilderness drought because it will be so aggressively opposed by many wilderness groups. Nonetheless, if it had been introduced, it could have ended up in S. 3213.

There are some non-wilderness bills in S.3213 that will benefit Montana, such as the Cooperative Watershed Management Act (cosponsored by Tester and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho), which creates a framework of federal grants and incentives for collaborative efforts to manage water resources and the SECURE Water Act (as in, take a deep breath, Science and Engineering to Comprehensively Understand and Responsibly Enhance), which requires assessing the impact of climate change on water resources.

So, yes, Montana will get an indirect benefit from some bills in S.3213, but again, I must ask, is that it?

I find it increasingly difficult to not throw in the towel and write off protecting our roadless lands as hopeless. Montana’s two Democratic senators religiously avoid controversial issues such as wilderness legislation, and even if one of them introduced a bill, Republican congressmen could (and probably would) prevent it from getting a hearing or floor vote in the House of Representatives. Montana seems to have a strong line-up of environmental groups with big memberships, but the state has nothing remotely close to a unified effort to protect roadless land.

The one headline that could cause some optimism would be one of our elected representatives finally standing up and agreeing to do what needs to be done to protect our roadless heritage. Should I hold my breath until this happens?