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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
May 03 2019

Ensuring Wilderness Has Seat at the Table

State lawmakers pass a resolution calling for a legislative study of our wilderness study areas. Here’s what we now expect.

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Last week, the Montana Legislature passed Senate Joint Resolution 20 (SJ20), introduced by Senator Jeff Welborn (R-Dillon). The resolution calls for a study of the seven wilderness study areas (WSAs) in Montana managed by the Forest Service. Those WSAs include the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn, West Pioneers, Blue Joint, Sapphires, and Ten Lakes. As part of this study, a committee of the legislature will convene stakeholders and hold public meetings over the next 15 months to discuss options for resolving these WSAs. In September 2020, this committee of 12 legislators, four legislative staffers, and four members of the public will issue a report to the state legislature that could include recommendations for future management and/or designations. Recommendations from this study could then form the basis of a state legislative resolution to encourage Congressional action on our WSAs.

MWA has long supported the goal of establishing a public process to help resolve the future of our WSAs. We believe that such a process can help us find mutually agreeable, bipartisan solutions for managing WSAs. We’ve also argued that any public process must include all interests that have a stake in the future of WSAs. With that in mind, we and our partners asked Senator Welborn to make some changes to the original draft of the resolution. In response, Senator Welborn made some significant changes to the study process, including requiring the committee to hold public meetings and “to learn about different stakeholder working groups and agency planning processes addressing this issue to better inform their decisions.” He also made changes to some of the opening language that addressed some of our concerns, but not all. 

The resolution that the legislature passed includes some troubling language in the opening regarding wilderness, language that sends the message that some voices and opinions may not be welcome in the process of the study. For that reason, we did not support the resolution in its final draft. 

Now that this resolution has passed, MWA will work diligently towards ensuring that the legislative committee addressing our WSAs adheres to a set of principles laid down in a letter to our Congressional delegation, which was signed by nearly 3,000 Montanans last year. As stated in that letter, any process for resolving our WSAs must:

  • Begin with a clear, bipartisan commitment to getting results in Washington, D.C.
  • Include various stakeholders, and does not force a one-size-fits all solution.
  • Recognize the history of collaborative dialogue in Montana and past legislative compromise.
  • Be fair, transparent, inclusive, and fact-based so as to produce outcomes that are implementable and durable.
  • Include public input gathered from communities closest to the areas at issue in the proposal, while recognizing these public lands belong to all Americans.

We will also insist that any recommendations and outcomes arising from this legislative committee’s process must reflect that our public lands are the backbone of our outdoor heritage, a source of clean drinking water, and critical habitat for Montana’s wildlife. If the study adheres to these requirements regarding both the process and outcomes, then we will be able to participate as a good faith partner and to ask our members and partners to do the same. 

In the House hearing, Senator Welborn, the resolution’s sponsor, stated that recommending additional wilderness designations within the WSAs could be an outcome of this study. MWA will hold him and the interim legislative committee to that statement and work to ensure that  wilderness has an equal seat at the table. 

Over the course of the next year and a half, we will need our members and supporters to actively engage in this process and speak up again and again for the future of wild places within our WSAs.

MWA will continue to watch this process carefully and keep you up-to-date on when and how you can participate. 

Pledge now to participate in this process

- Kayje Booker, MWA policy and advocacy director