The U.S. Senate on Friday approved a sprawling lands bill that includes the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, sending to President Barack Obama’s desk a suite of measures that add new wilderness to Montana for the first time in 31 years.
The Montana bills are part of a broad collection of national bills and land proposals attached to the annual National Defense Authorization Act. The 89-11 vote came in at 3 p.m. with Montana’s Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh both voting in favor.
The National Defense Authorization Act allows $585 billion in discretionary spending and $63.7 billion in overseas contingency operations. Obama was expected to sign the bill into law in the coming days.
But this time, it also includes a package of 70 national public land management bills, the largest collection since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Together, they create about 250,000 acres of new wilderness designation and protection of other lands from energy development in Montana.
Most Montana conservation groups hailed passage of the land management measures as a monumental success, while others across the nation rankled that the measures also open thousands of acres to logging in Alaska and exchange federal lands for new mining operations.
Eight Montana bills were included in the package, including the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which bans future mining and drilling on 383,267 acres in the North Fork of the Flathead River, an area that tracks along the western edge of Glacier National Park, and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, designates 208,000 acres nearby as a conservation management area, and releases 14,000 acres of wilderness study areas for a new assessment of the potential for oil and gas extraction. It also allows the reassessment of 15,000 additional acres of wilderness study areas.
Current and former members of Montana’s congressional delegation have been working on some of the bills for months and even decades, and recently ramped up negotiations in an effort to spur the legislation forward before the lame-duck session expires.
Tester and Walsh worked alongside Senator-elect and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines to include the Montana lands bills in the broader lands package.
“I am proud of this historic agreement, and I am particularly proud today to be a Montanan,” Tester said on the Senate floor. “Montana is home to sky-touching mountains and beautiful plains. It’s home to hard-working men and women and to Native Americans with deep connections to the land. But it’s The Last Best Place because we are all of these things and because we are willing to work together to preserve and strengthen them.”
“Montana’s congressional delegation was able to put aside political differences by following the example set by of our fellow citizens,” Walsh said. “Passage of the North Fork withdrawal caps 40 years of Montanans working together to protect our outdoor heritage and strengthen the economy of the Flathead.”
Other Montana bills include: The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act, which returns mineral rights to the tribe covering 5,000 acres of coal deposits within the reservation; the Grazing Improvement Act, which extends the life of grazing permits on federal lands from 10 to 20 years; and a measure that removes a law that prevents irrigation districts, including four in Montana, from developing hydropower on Bureau of Reclamation canals and ditches.
All three delegates said the bipartisan cooperation and compromise that went into crafting the package is an example of how Congress should work.
“The significance of this cannot be understated. None of us came to Washington to sit on our hands and obstruct,” Tester said. “We came to make this country a better place.”
The North Fork legislation received an outpouring of local support as groups have come together for decades urging its passage.
The bill has roots that reach back nearly 40 years, when the first Canadian coal mining proposals sought to tear down peaks in Glacier National Park’s headwaters.
In 2010, Montana reached an historic accord with British Columbia’s leadership, pledging to together protect the wild and scenic region. The following year, Canadian lawmakers upheld their portion of the agreement by safeguarding lands north of the border.
“A century ago, Montanans showed extraordinary vision in successfully urging Congress to establish Glacier National Park; their foresight has been our great inheritance. Glacier has formed the center of our landscape and our economy, drawing the visitors and entrepreneurs who keep our economies vibrant with their investment in the park’s gateway communities,” said Michael Jamison, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Glacier program manager. “There are places in this world deserving of careful stewardship. Glacier National Park and the transboundary North Fork are among those irreplaceable treasures.”
Peter Aengst of the Wilderness Society noted the significance of the timing of the new wilderness protections, which come 50 years after passage of the Wilderness Act. He said he was proud of the Montana delegation for coming together to deliver on critical bills like the North Fork and the Rocky Mountain Front, but said he did not agree with the removal of the wilderness study areas.
“While there some unsavory provisions in the package that the Wilderness Society opposed and we are disappointed by the two WSAs released in eastern Montana, overall Montana and America’s wildlands benefited significantly from this package,” he said.
Tester said he was disappointed that his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was omitted from the package, a concession he made to advance the other bills, but said that releasing the two wilderness study areas “was not the end of the world” as the parcels on the Bureau of Land Management had already been determined to have insufficient wilderness attributes. Still, the land had been managed as wilderness because Congress had not decided otherwise.
Some wilderness advocates were critical of the changes to the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act that released and reassessed the BLM wilderness study areas.
“In Montana, with no public notice or meetings, Sen. Tester and Rep. Daines decided to release currently protected Wilderness Study Areas for development,” Matthew Koehler of WildWest Institute said in an email. “They also threw some Montana ranching families under the bus by giving Great Northern Properties 112 million tons of coal, which is equivalent to 3 years worth of all coal currently mined in Montana. For some wilderness perspective, the bill protects only 1 percent of the 6,397,000 acres of unprotected, wilderness-eligible roadless (land) in Montana. Nationally, these riders protect just 0.2 percent of unprotected Wilderness-eligible acres. This is no way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act or preserve America’s Wilderness legacy for wildlife and future generations.”
But Montana’s congressional leaders said balancing land protection and natural resource opportunities was critical in sealing the deal.
All three delegates said the bipartisan cooperation and compromise that went into crafting the package is an example of how Congress should work, even as they clashed on many of the issues contained within the package.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted but it’s not the end of the world. I think it’s very unfortunate that we weren’t able to get my Forest Jobs and Recreation Act passed,” Tester said. “But together we got a lot of good done for Montana.”