Reasons to Worry About Impacts of WSA Legislation

Daines and Gianforte continue to pursue legislation that is wildly unpopular with Montanans

By Mary Maj

In these unusual political times, it seems that some politicians will say anything, no matter how misleading their talking points. Unfortunately, here in Montana, we’ve seen this over and over by some members of Montana’s congressional delegation as they attempt to explain away policies that are both indefensible and unpopular

For example, recent legislation introduced by Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte would strip existing protections from nearly a half-million acres of wilderness study areas on our national forests and BLM lands that are valued by Montanans and have been protected for over four decades.

A recent poll, commissioned by the University of Montana, found that only 11 percent of Montanans support Daines’ and Gianforte’s legislation to remove protections for the Sapphire Mountains, Big Snowies, Centennial Mountains, Bitter Creek and the other areas affected by the bill.

Rather than accept that this legislation is wildly unpopular among Montanans, our junior senator and congressman decided to attack the credibility of the pollsters – which included a well-respected Republican pollster who has represented numerous Montana and national Republicans – as well as the University of Montana.

Doubling down on the approach, their staff went on to boldly state that a poll question was incorrect in stating that the legislation would eliminate protections for wilderness study areas. The most charitable interpretation of comments like these is that neither the senator, the congressman, nor their staff understand what their own legislation would do.

Daines has repeatedly asserted that even if his legislation passed, the wilderness study areas affected would still be protected by the roadless rule which prohibits most commercial logging and road-building within unroaded areas on our national forests.

The senator, of course, neglects to mention that members of his own party in Congress continue to attack the roadless rule in efforts to see it eviscerated or overturned entirely. Furthermore, the roadless rule, which only applies to national forests, doesn’t provide any protection to the BLM wilderness study areas threatened by Congressman Gianforte’s second bill, that strips existing protections from 24 BLM areas.

Setting all this aside, the roadless rule simply doesn’t do what the senator and congressman promise.

The roadless rule does not prohibit mining: all valid existing rights as well as roads permitted under other statutes – like the 1872 mining law – are exempt from the roadless rule’s prohibitions on road building. That’s why the rule’s preamble states, “Access for the exploration of locatable minerals pursuant to the General Mining Law of 1872 is not prohibited by this rule…rights of access to locatable mineral exploration and development of valid claims would not be affected.”

The senator and congressman go on to argue that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would also protect the wilderness study areas, should they be stripped of their status as wilderness study areas. No doubt, NEPA is an important law that provides the public with information about the environmental and human impacts of land management actions. But the law doesn’t protect land – it simply gives the public an opportunity to be informed and provides a public involvement process allowing citizens an opportunity to participate in public land decisions. Considering Daines has undertaken a crusade in Congress to revise NEPA, one would think he knows this.

Daines and Gianforte continue to pursue legislation that is wildly unpopular with Montanans and won’t accurately describe what their legislation does. We have come to accept such falsehoods from our elected officials, but we shouldn’t. Allowing such claims and actions to stand unchallenged diminishes our political system and reduces faith in our nation’s leaders. Montanans deserve better.

Mary Maj retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2015 after serving for 35 years as a wildlife biologist, resource staff officer and district ranger in the Northern and Pacific Northwest Regions.

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