Over the last month, outdoors groups and businesses across the state have intensified a public campaign in opposition to a bill that proposes to remove federal protections from roughly 43 million acres of backcountry wilderness study and inventoried roadless areas, including about 5.5 million acres in Montana.
But bill proponents, including Montana Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, are pointing to their own list of outdoors groups and other organizations in support of the legislation. The back-and-forth has given considerable attention to a bill that currently isn’t moving in Congress.
Rehberg is one of 41 cosponsors of the U.S. House version of the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, which was authored by California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy. There is a counterpart bill – S-1087 – in the Senate. The House bill received a subcommittee hearing last July but hasn’t had any action since, with no markups scheduled.
In February, the Montana Wildlife Federation launched an ad campaign in opposition to the bill, specifically criticizing Rehberg, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Jon Tester for his Senate seat.
Then last week, 100 businesses from across Montana sent a letter to Rehberg, Tester and Sen. Max Baucus in opposition to the legislation, arguing that it “would destroy hunting, angling and outdoor recreational opportunities by opening up millions of acres of our nation’s greatest fish and game habitats for development.”
“When Washington DC politicians try to open these lands for development they not only threaten our unique quality of life in Montana,” the March 14 letter stated, “but for many businesses and employers, they threaten our financial bottom line as well. Montana’s backcountry is good for business – let’s keep it that way.”
The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act would open up 36 million acres of U.S. Forest Service “Inventoried Roadless Areas” and nearly 7 million acres of Bureau of Land Management “Wilderness Study Areas.” Roughly 5.5 million acres are located in Montana.
Proponents say the land targeted in the bill has been deemed unsuitable for wilderness designation but is still protected as if it’s wilderness. Removing protections would free the acres up to multiple uses, including road construction and natural resource development, which they say would boost local economies.
On March 6, after the Montana Wildlife Federation’s ads began appearing, Rehberg sent out a press release with statements from a dozen groups in support of the bill, including the National Rifle Association, the Safari Club and the Montana Snowmobile Association. The release said the bill would return “these lands, under local management, to the public for use and enjoyment.”
Last week, Rehberg’s office added a handful of other organizations to the list of proponents, including the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. In a statement, Rehberg reiterated his stance that since the government has decided the land is unsuitable for wilderness then protections should be loosened.
“This land is still treated like wilderness, which not only restricts public access but limits our ability to manage the land to keep forests healthy for wildlife,” the congressman said. “Loosening restrictions on some of this land not only opens the land for public use and enjoyment, but improves the habitat for deer, elk and fish.”
Also on March 6, Ben Lamb of the Montana Wildlife Federation held a press conference to discuss the bill and the group’s television ads running in the Helena area. Among the others on the press call were Mike Aderhold, a retired Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4 wildlife manager, and Ryan Busse, board chair of the Montana Conservation Voters.
Tim Aldrich of the Montana Wildlife Federation said the ads came out after months of waiting for a response from Rehberg after the federation requested a meeting with the congressman.
Last September, the federation was one of 26 hunting and fishing groups to send a letter to Montana’s federal delegation decrying the proposed act. Tester, chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, announced his support of the groups’ efforts, calling the bill an “attack” on the state’s outdoor industry.
Last week, the senator again denounced the legislation. Tester’s office says there is already a $6 billion maintenance backlog for existing Forest Service roads.
“I share the concerns of Montana’s businesses, hunters and anglers,” Tester said in an email to the Beacon. “This irresponsible bill is dangerous and expensive to taxpayers, allowing road-building and development in some of the world’s best hunting backcountry.”
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