News & Features

Congress Approves Montana Wilderness

Bill adds wilderness and protects the North Fork of the Flathead River

The U.S. Senate approved an expansive defense bill Friday with a provision that adds new wilderness lands in Montana for the first time in 31 years, and blocks mining and drilling near Glacier National Park.

The measure passed 89-11 and now goes to the president for his signature.

The wilderness provision — known as the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act — had been around for years and was introduced by Sen. John Walsh’s predecessor, Sen. Max Baucus. It adds about 105 square miles to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in northwest Montana.

Another 325 square miles along the Rocky Mountain Front were put into a conservation management area. Existing roads would remain and grazing could continue, but the designation would limit further development.

Also in the bill was a complex coal swap involving the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe.

It restores 5,000 acres of coal reserves that were wrongly stripped from the tribe more than a century ago. Conservationists had objected to a Texas land company gaining more than 100 million tons of coal in the exchange.

The Heritage Act had failed to advance when offered previously as stand-alone legislation. But Walsh and Sen. Jon Tester, both Democrats, worked with Republican Rep. Steve Daines to put together a package the whole delegation supported, and they persuaded party leaders to insert it in the defense bill.

To get Daines’ support, the Heritage Act language was altered to release about 22 square miles within two southeast Montana wilderness study areas so they can be used in other ways. Also added was a requirement for the government to study the oil and gas potential on an area of comparable size within central Montana’s Bridge Coulee and Musselshell Breaks wilderness study areas.

“Everybody can claim victory,” Tester said. “It’s much more than just wilderness, it’s more than just land management. It’s righting wrongs. … There’s some wilderness release, but that’s about compromise.”

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Administrator William Walks Along said the coal exchange was important for his tribe, particularly after it had paid dearly to retain its own land during the settlement of the Western U.S.

The swap would fix a mistake made in 1900, when the government expanded the reservation but failed to acquire the underlying minerals. The 5,000 acres of coal have been under the control of Great Northern Properties of Houston. The company would give that up in exchange for federally owned coal near the Bull Mountain Mine near Roundup.

The tribe has long sought to protect its land by keeping it in federal trust for the benefit of its members.

“It all links back to land and natural resources,” Walks Along said. The tribe has no pending plans to develop its coal reserves, but Walks Along said that possibility could surface in the future.

Congress last designated new wilderness in Montana in 1983, when the Lee Metcalf Wilderness of nearly 400 square miles was created under President Ronald Reagan, said Montana Wilderness Association Executive Director Brian Sybert.

Sybert said his group didn’t like the release of the wilderness study areas in southeast Montana but accepted it as the cost of getting something accomplished.

“It was the reality of crafting legislation,” he said. “We will advocate for those lands to make sure they look the same in the future as they do today.”