Tester Putting Wilderness Areas on Front Burner

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Wilderness advocates and key officials say Sen. Jon Tester’s office has plans to bring Montana its first new wilderness designation since the 1980s.

But Tester’s office is keeping details quiet — just saying that anyone interested in how forests are managed should contact the senator.

Plans for the designation of a new wilderness area draw on separate proposals that have been in the works for years, say advocates who hope legislation will fast-track hundreds of thousands of acres into wilderness status.

Congress voted earlier this year to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness — from California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. Montana was not included in those designations.

Beaverhead County commissioners say they have been in earnest talks with Tester’s office over designation of perhaps 500,000 acres of new wilderness in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Those commissioners say they have been pressing to make sure the Montana Wilderness Association and its allies do not hold sway over the final plan.

Commissioner Mike McGinley said the first proposed wilderness map presented to him by Tester’s office came straight from the MWA-backed Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership. But he said Tester’s folks switched the base map to a hybrid of a Forest Service plan, developed earlier this decade, for the area.

McGinley said he believes the partnership proposal, which focuses on bringing wilderness advocates together with logging interests, does not represent everyone. He said commissioners are willing to support new wilderness as long as it matches with the Forest Service plan that emerged after extensive public comment.

“Please, Sen. Tester, do not use that partnership plan as the basis of the wilderness plan,” McGinley said. “Do not deviate from the forest plan, or we can’t support it. It’s pretty simple.”

McGinley said there will be some losers in any wilderness designation, such as users of motorized vehicles, hunters and ranchers who graze livestock — all people who could find strict regulation forcing them off the range.

Tester spokesman Patrick Devlin said the senator is considering the proposals from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, and smaller proposals, including one that is in the Seeley Lake area and came from the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project and another, in northwestern Montana, that came from Three Rivers Challenge.

Devlin said Tester’s office wants to hear from anyone interested in the issue. Draft legislation would just be the start of discussion.

“We are not introducing legislation yet, but introducing legislation is only the beginning to an end,” Devlin said.

The Montana Wilderness Association said it doesn’t know what exactly Tester’s office will bring forward.

“It’s always good to see your work realized, and this would be a major step in doing so,” said MWA spokeswoman Crystine Miller.

Miller said the association’s proposal would close very few roads and trails to motorized use.

Russ Ehnes of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association said his group supports protecting natural resources, and believes there are options that would not exclude all motorized access.

“We understand the senator is trying to tackle this contentious issue by proposing wilderness designations for areas where there appears to be consensus; but on (the) Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership agreement, the motorized community was excluded,” Ehnes said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership project aims to create wilderness while setting aside areas for sustainable logging to keep the timber industry working. Miller said the Montana Wilderness Association believes the forest is big enough for more wilderness while accommodating users such as snowmobilers.

Devlin said Tester’s office has not established a timeline for introducing legislation or a firm plan for winning its passage — although key stakeholders said they have been told to expect draft legislation soon.

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