The Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership: Right Idea, Wrong Bill

By Beacon Staff

For four years, I’ve been writing about what I’ve coined the “Wilderness Drought,” 25 years of frustration and infighting since we’ve seen a single acre of wilderness designated in Montana. Now, several mainstream groups have joined forces with representatives of the wood products industry in a grand attempt to end it.

The political reality of today requires this collaborative, “bottom-up” approach because politicians are so gun-shy about wilderness legislation. They only want lay-ups with all stakeholders already on board, which is the motivation behind this upcoming legislation. After decades of nothing, Montana wilderness advocates have decided to play the new, quid pro quo game to have some chance of success.

Regrettably, this flawed bill looks more like a half-court shot for our congressional delegation and could extend instead of end the wilderness drought.

You have to admire the effort. After years of hard work, thousands of miles of driving, and many dozens of meetings with agencies, timber mills, bike clubs, county commissions, three mainstream green groups (Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Trout Unlimited and National Wildlife Federation) and five leaders of the wood products industry (Sun Mountain, Pyramid Mountain, Roseburg Lumber, RY Lumber, Smurfit-Stone) developed the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership (BDP) and then drafted the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Conservation, Restoration and Stewardship Act (note the absence of the word, “wilderness”). This bill was written two years ago, but still has not been introduced. Now, the BDP partners are pressuring the delegation to go for it when the 111th Congress opens for business in January.

That still gives us enough time to fix the bill’s shortcomings and turn a good idea into legislation most wilderness advocates can support, but will this happen? Hopefully, but I’m not going to hold my breath for this to happen.

At this point, the partners seem locked into the current plan, even though everybody is not on board, to say the least. Many pro-wilderness groups oppose the current version of the bill, as do mountain bikers, plus all the usual anti-wilderness suspects – the motorized recreation industry, miners and other “single users,” and some segments of the timber industry.

So what does the BDP bill do? In short, a lot, but most significantly, it would:

• Designate 14 new wilderness areas in southwestern Montana adding up to 573,000 acres of new wilderness, including 82,300 acres added to two existing wilderness areas, Anaconda-Pintlar and Lee Metcalf. Critics of the bill charge that the bill protects only the high, rocky centers of mountain ranges, which is generally true, but in many cases, the rest of the range has been roaded and no longer qualifies as wilderness.

• Relegate roughly 2,300,000 acres of the 3,350,000-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (largest in Montana) to “stewardship areas” and declare 700,000 acres “eligible” for timber management within one year of the date the bill passes, but require that all new roads must be “temporary.”

• Require the Forest Service to “mechanically treat” 70,000 acres, land at high risk of wildfires and insect infestations.

• Sacrifice more than 200,000 aces of roadless wild land to timber management.

• Essentially, “undesignate” and open to logging two existing, congressionally protected wild lands, Sapphire Mountains and West Pioneers Wilderness Study Areas.

You won’t see anything about those last bullet points in the draft legislation or mentioned the BDP website, but these are certain to be the most controversial clauses in the bill – and the sections in dire need of revision before introduction.

The Sapphires and West Pioneers get capital letters because these aren’t your run-of-the-mill roadless lands. Both are protected under the S. 393, the Montana Wilderness Study Act, passed in 1977, when Montana had Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf in the Senate – and sadly, a year before Metcalf passed away and Mansfield retired.

Perhaps the most significant clause in S. 393 is Section 3(a), which states: “…The wilderness study areas shall, until Congress determines otherwise, be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.”

Amazingly, 31 years ago and unknown to many people, this so-called “interim protection” clause essentially made wilderness out of the nine wild lands. If the BDP bill passes, we’ll be down to seven, which makes the BDP bill white-hot controversial among wildernuts who believe it sets a horrific precedent of, in essence, “undesignating” wilderness.

In the BDP bill, only the highest, rockiest, non-timber-producing core of the 151,000-acre West Pioneers WSA becomes a 34,000-acre wilderness with the rest going to the timber industry for “stewardship” logging. Ditto for the 94,000-acre Sapphire WSA, which the bill slashes into the 43,000-acre Sapphire Wilderness.

In each case, the lower, flatter, more productive, timber-growing sites, the best wildlife habitat and hunting land, goes to the timber industry and the high-altitude, often treeless country – or the “rocks and ice” to opponents – that rarely is threatened with development becomes wilderness.

Because of this loss of key roadless land, many wilderness groups oppose the BDP bill as written. Consequently, it has done nothing but intensify the already intense impasse.

Revising the BDP bill to fully protect the Sapphires and West Pioneers and more of the West Big Hole would make it much less controversial and more appealing to the congressional delegation – and get most of the wilderness community on the same page, for once!

I support the quid pro quo approach, but not when it gives up three spectacular de facto wilderness areas, especially when two of them already have been protected by an Act of Congress. As far as I’m concerned, this is no different than wilderness advocates giving away part of the Bob Marshall or Absaroka-Beartooth. Hopefully, BDP partners will see this way before it’s too late.