Call to Action in the Bitterroot
We’re rallying next week on behalf of the Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas
If Senator Steve Daines has his way, you might find a gold mine where you used to find native trout up beautiful Blue Joint Creek or off-road vehicles ripping through vast wet meadows in the Sapphires, some of the best elk habitat in the Lower 48.
That place I took my daughter for her first sight of golden alpine larch? Or where good friends return, year after year, for some of the best bowhunting in America? Sen. Daines thinks these places might be better off with a road through them. And he doesn’t seem to care much what you think about it. After all, he hasn’t given the public any opportunity to weigh in on S. 2206, a bill he introduced in December that would remove protection from a half-million acres of our wildest, most pristine public lands.
To this day, Sen. Daines has held zero public meetings to seek input from Montanans on his legislation. It’s time we demand a seat at the table.
Ravalli County, where the Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness study areas are located, has scheduled a hearing on Wednesday, February 7th at 10 a.m. in the Commissioners’ meeting room at 215 S. 4th Street in Hamilton.
If you can’t make it to this meeting, please sign this open letter in support of the Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas.
Sen. Daines’ bill would remove protection from all of the Sapphire (94,000 acres), and half of the Blue Joint (32,000 out of 61,400 total acres) wilderness study areas (WSAs). Three other WSAs would be eliminated: West Pioneer (151,000 acres), Big Snowies (91,000), and Middle Fork Judith (81,000). If enacted, this bill would result in the single biggest loss of protected public lands in Montana history.
If legislative protections are repealed, the Bitterroot National Forest will be under great pressure to rescind actions taken to protect historic wilderness character, opening the door to oil and gas leasing, mining, and damaging OHV traffic.
Doris Milner of Hamilton – past president of MWA, legendary advocate for wildlands and wild rivers, and a seasoned angler – was the driving force behind protecting the Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas. Her legislative champion was none other than Sen. Lee Metcalf, who was born and raised in Stevensville with the Sapphires out the back door. In one of his final acts in Congress, Sen. Metcalf shepherded the Montana Wilderness Study Areas Act of 1977 to the finish line, protecting nine areas around Montana.
For years Montanans have worked across party lines to find permanent and collaborative agreements for each of the nine areas. In 1983, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness was designated and the Mount Henry WSA was released to multiple use management, resolving two of the nine areas. Since then, Montana’s Congressional delegation has introduced balanced legislative solutions – in 1984, 1986, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2009, 2011, and 2013.
In 1988, a bill that addressed all of the remaining WSAs passed both the House and the Senate with unanimous consent, only to be vetoed by President Reagan (to this day, the only veto ever excercized to stop wilderness legislation).
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. On Monday, January 29th, residents in four counties submitted letters to their county commissions warning that they may have violated open meeting laws when they sent letters to Sen. Daines in support of a bill removing protection from wilderness study areas in their counties. These individuals requested that the counties rescind their letters to Sen. Daines and initiate a public process.
Ravalli County, where the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs are located, immediately scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, February 7.
Will you join us at the hearing to defend the Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas? If not, please sign the open letter to Ravalli County Commissioners.
According to Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, “the 1977 legislation itself dictates on the ground management” within Montana Wilderness Study Act areas. Where the U.S. Forest Service has acted to prevent activities harmful to wilderness character, he says, it is “only because of the command imposed by the 1977 legislation.”
If legislative protections are repealed, the Bitterroot National Forest will be under great pressure to rescind actions taken to protect historic wilderness character, opening the door to oil and gas leasing, mining, and damaging OHV traffic. In 1996, the statutory language of the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Areas Act prevented the Bitterroot National Forest from bulldozing ORV trails into the Sapphire WSA. A gold mine proposal for upper Blue Joint Creek historically threatened the blue-ribbon Bitterroot River and the recreation economy that it supports. The Montana Wilderness Study Act kept such disastrous plans at bay.
Our wilderness study areas deserve unique, place-based agreements that protect wilderness character and wildlife and have the strength to stand the test of time. Sen. Daines’ top-down, one-size-fits-all approach creates conflict and gridlock. We expect more from elected officials and we demand a seat at the table.
Raise your voice at the hearing on February 7th and let’s make sure the Sapphire and Blue Joint stay just the way they are.
- Zack Porter, MWA western Montana field director