BILLINGS – Montana’s Congressional delegation said Wednesday they have attached a suite of public lands-related legislation affecting the state to a defense bill that is expected to come up for a vote in coming days.
Included are measures to create new wilderness along the Rocky Mountain Front, block mining and drilling near Glacier National Park and return 5,000 acres of coal reserves to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe as part of a complex exchange.
Democrat U.S. Senators John Walsh and Jon Tester and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines worked together to get the legislation attached to a pending defense authorization bill.
The three held a joint news conference Wednesday in which they referred to the lands package as historic in its importance to Montana. “The entire Montana delegation has come to an agreement on a lands package that will not only preserve some of our state’s most treasured places, it will also help power Montana’s economy,” Tester said.
The House is expected to vote on the $585 million bipartisan defense bill this week, and the Senate will consider it next week. The defense bill is one of the few bipartisan measures in Congress that has successfully made it to the president’s desk for decades.
Daines said the eight bills included in the Montana lands package strike a balance between land preservation and the economy, such as extending the duration of grazing permits on federal lands from 10 years to 20 years.
Other provisions would revise federal laws to encourage small-scale hydropower projects, establish a new fee system for cabin owners on public lands, and retain a U.S. Bureau of Land Management field office in Miles City to speed up oil and gas permitting by the agency.
Conspicuously absent from the legislative package was Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which was first introduced in 2009 and would expand wilderness and mandate more logging on federal lands.
Tester said he had pushed hard to include it. But the prospect of changing the way the U.S. Forest Service manages land had made people in Washington, D.C., nervous, he said.
The inclusion of the Northern Cheyenne coal exchange was criticized by a Billings-based conservation group as a give-away to Houston company that stands to benefit from the deal. Under the three-way swap, Great Northern Properties would transfer a large coal reserve to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. In exchange, the company would receive from the Interior department an estimated 112 million tons of coal near Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain coal mine.
The swap would fix a mistake made in 1900, when the government expanded the reservation but failed to acquire the underlying minerals.
But Steve Charter, who chairs the Northern Plains Resource Council and ranches near Roundup, said it amounts to a subsidy of Great Northern. “This kind of thing should be debated on its own merits, not snuck into a bill that’s supposed to be about national defense.”
Others voiced support for the package. A coalition of ranchers, hunters and others supporting the parts of the bill dealing with the Rocky Mountain Front applauded the delegation for getting the legislation “as close as it’s ever been to becoming law.”
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