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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Sep 21 2018

History as Our Guide: Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Management Act

In the first installment of our series on previous legislation that resolved wilderness study areas, we examine this 1983 bill

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“History as Our Guide” is a three-part series looking back on past efforts by Montanans to find long-term solutions for public lands currently protected as wilderness study areas. These efforts involved public meetings and produced balanced proposals for increased protection in some areas and decreased protection in others. In contrast, Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte are currently pursuing a wholesale removal of protections without taking any input from Montanans who benefit from, use, and cherish these areas.

Montana currently has 44 wilderness study areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Forest Service manages seven of these areas, which were created by a bi-partisan act of Congress in November of 1977. 

In the early 1980s, Congress was busy debating and passing state-by-state legislation to address U.S. Forest Service studies known as the Roadless Area Review and Evaluations (“RARE II”). Completed in 1979, the evaluations helped motivate lawmakers to determine the future of more than 62 million acres of exceptional American public lands, including millions of acres in Big Sky Country. 

In Montana, however, there was a second political imperative for legislative action on the state’s wildest public lands. In 1977, Senator Lee Metcalf passed the Montana Wilderness Study Act to protect the wilderness character of nine remarkable Montana landscapes (over 700,000 acres) until Congress determined which areas to designate as Wilderness. The bill became law on November 1, just two months before its author’s untimely death, in office, at age 67.

Montana’s congressional delegation intended to craft a grand legislative compromise that would act on the RARE II evaluations of Montana’s road-free lands (part two of this series focuses on this effort) but their first priority was passage of a wilderness bill to pay tribute to Lee Metcalf’s conservation legacy. 

The bi-partisan Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Management Act (Public Law 98-140) was drafted and supported by all four members of Montana’s Congressional delegation, which consisted of three Democrats and one Republican. But the process was far from easy. Some of the compromises included in the final bill stimulated fierce debate among Montanans, and strongly held opinions were on full display during joint House and Senate Congressional field hearings on the RARE evaluations in Anaconda, Great Falls, and Missoula in July 1983. 
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In all, the bill was a remarkable tribute to Lee Metcalf, who had championed and signed the original Wilderness Act of 1964. It was also a fine example of legislative habits that have since fallen out of fashion with some legislators, such as public meetings with constituents and compromise with one’s legislative colleagues. 

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The bill became law a few months later, and the details of this legislation are reminders that wilderness conservation is rarely achieved without compromise. For example, the bill removed wilderness study area protections in the Mount Henry WSA on the Kootenai National Forest (21,000 acres), the Taylor-Hilgard WSA on the Gallatin National Forest (approximately 115,000 acres), and in the Tongue River Breaks area of the Custer National Forest (16,500 acres). The legislation also created the Cabin Creek Special Management Area (38,000 acres) to allow snowmobiling and other motorized uses.

On the other hand, the legislation secured remarkable conservation gains, protecting the BLM Beartrap Canyon Study Area, Spanish Peaks Primitive Area, and part of the Taylor-Hilgard Wilderness Study Area as the newly designated Lee Metcalf Wilderness (259,000 acres). 

Additionally, the bill dealt with several smaller parcels of land and two oft-forgotten provisions merit particular attention. The bill authorized and directed the acquisition and exchange of Burlington Northern Railroad Lands in the Madison Range, thereby consolidating 24,000 acres of privately owned land into the public domain, places that are well used by hikers, packers, bikers, and stock growers today. The bill also facilitated acquisition of private lands within the Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Areas by authorizing the sale of federal coal leases in the Powder River and directing that the proceeds be used to compensate the Montana Power Company for inholdings in the Rattlesnake.

It was as common then as it is today for hardliners on either side of a land management argument to deride a legislative compromise as just another political deal. After this deal, however, the conservation ledger was squarely in the black. In total, about 30 percent more acres were protected for conservation than were repurposed for other uses. A quarter of a million acres were protected in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and thousands of acres of private lands were purchased for pubic enjoyment. 

In all, the bill was a remarkable tribute to Lee Metcalf, who had championed and signed the original Wilderness Act of 1964. It was also a fine example of legislative habits that have since fallen out of fashion with some legislators, such as public meetings with constituents and compromise with one’s legislative colleagues. 

In their efforts to remove protections on 800,000 acres of public lands in Montana, Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte have rejected both of these common sense practices. Yet, they still seem surprised that just 11% of Montanans support their bills. 

Of course, it’s possible a different approach could conjure a different result, and we hope the bi-partisan approach taken by Montana’s delegation in 1983 offers both legislators some inspiration moving forward.

- Gabriel Furshong, MWA deputy director