Wilderness for Next Christmas

By Beacon Staff

Next year, at this time, Montana’s Congressional Delegation can lay a wonderful gift under our Christmas tree – Wilderness.

Montana’s few remaining unroaded lands deserve protection and the vast majority of our citizens want these lands to remain just as they are: wild and free. All of us realize that our state is now and will continue to undergo significant changes in our population and economy. But, as best we can, we should preserve as much of Montana’s traditional life style as possible.

Out our way the land is significant to that life style. The great wild sweep of our prairies, valleys, ramps, and summits, the rush of our rivers’ lifeblood, the last of the nation’s great migrating land animals, the spectacular scenery; all of this and more define us. For our grandchildren’s grandchildren Montanans want to keep it just the way it is: wild, unroaded, and free. It is not an accident that we still have wild places in Montana. Many of those before us worked to achieve it.

But in more recent times such efforts have faltered. It has been exactly thirty years since the Forest Service completed and sent to the U. S. Congress its Roadless Area Review and Evaluation of Montana’s and America’s wild public lands. Because only the Congress can legislate use designations over public land, it busily went about that task. The resulting Wilderness designations of wild federal land continued, state by state, for twenty years.

The effort to protect the wild places has been virtually completed everywhere in the nation – with only two exceptions: Idaho and Montana. During the past decade Idaho has at least tried for Wilderness designations. Montana’s lack of action is both disappointing and without precedent.

During my years in the U. S. House of Representatives, our Delegation – both Democrats and Republicans – passed several Montana Wilderness bills through the Senate and House. Once in 1988 we came to full agreement on a single state-wide bill, passed and sent it to the White House. In a cynical, political, election year act President Ronald Reagan executed the only veto of a Wilderness bill in American history. That veto was not only the beginning of the Wilderness Drought but it also contributed enormously to the timber industry’s inability to plan; one of the direct results of which has been the closing of dozens of timber mills and a significant reduction in harvest.

It has now been fourteen years since a member of the Montana Delegation has even introduced a Wilderness bill. Although many folks understand and, to some degree, appreciate the reasons for this Wilderness Drought. It is now time to end the Drought.

As we do so, it will be important to recall which lands these are: public lands managed by the U. S. Forest Service, critical watersheds, spawning grounds, big game habitats, and migration corridors. There are no roads crisscrossing these lands and neither is there any snowmobiling or ORV use.

This green, flourishing, wild estate is Montana’s life style and legacy.

Let’s finally get about protecting it.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U. S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West

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