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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Mar 07 2018

The Deception Daines is Using to Sell His WSA Bill

Montanans expect honest, open conversation, not a stream of misinformation, in creation of public lands legislation

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Senator Steve Daines is working hard to sell Montanans on a bill that would remove congressional protections on almost 500,000 acres of public land in Montana. He’s also working hard to avoid answering questions Montanans have about his bill. 

He did not engage in public discussions before introducing the bill on December 7th and has not held a single public meeting about the bill since, even though he and his staff have received numerous requests. Then, two weeks ago, he rearranged his official schedule to avoid meeting with 60 constituents in Hamilton who arrived at the appointed time to share their concerns. In fact, he avoided these people by leaving through the back door of the meeting location just as they were arriving.

One explanation for his evasiveness is that misinformation is easier to represent as facts if you don’t have to publically defend your statements. 

The misinformation begins with the very name of the bill, “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act.” 

It almost goes without saying: Wilderness study areas (WSAs) are open to anyone and everyone. They are public lands that belong to all Americans. You can hike, fish, hunt, camp, horseback ride, ski, and snowshoe within them. You can even snowmobile and mountain bike in some of them. For instance, every acre of the 151,000-acre West Pioneer WSA is open to snowmobiles, as is nearly a quarter of the Sapphire WSA in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Another piece of misinformation Sen. Daines keeps repeating is that his bill won’t enable industrial development on these public lands.

Sen. Daines knows his bill would overturn a congressional mandate that prevents the Forest Service from diminishing the historic wilderness character of five wilderness study areas on three national forests. When this protection is removed, a wide range of activities that are currently illegal, such as hard rock mining and oil and gas drilling, will be legally possible for the USFS to permit in the future. On-the-ground management might not change overnight, but the legal framework that defines management options will change the moment the bill is signed.

History provides insight into what could happen if this bill becomes law. In 1986, Shell Oil attempted to purchase 49,000 acres of federal oil and gas lease claims in the Big Snowies. In 1996, Cominco attempted to develop new copper claims in the headwaters of Swimming Woman Creek, also in the Big Snowies. Both attempts were blocked because the area was protected. Sen. Daines now wants to remove that protection.

If Sen. Daines truly believes his bill won’t change the way the Big Snowies and other WSAs are managed, he might want to inform the Montana Petroleum Association, which told the Great Falls Tribune that it supports the bill because it would like to see these areas open to oil and gas exploration.

Another whopper Sen. Daines likes to tell is that the public lands addressed in his bill are not suitable for protection.

Sen. Daines relies on Forest Service decisions from 1986 (Lolo National Forest and Helena-Lewis Clark National Forest), 1987 (Bitterroot National Forest), and 2009 (Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest) to support his claim that he is removing protections from areas that are not suitable for protection. But he chooses to ignore equally valid and more recent USFS decisions that urge Congress to protect some of these lands as wilderness. 

For example, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is currently revising its 32-year old forest plan. After more than three years of public meetings in at least ten different Montana communities, a new draft plan was released in the fall of 2016. The draft forest plan currently proposes to recommend wilderness protection for the Big Snowies. 

A recent study by Travis Belote, a Research Ecologist at the Wilderness Society, reinforces this decision. He found the landscapes impacted by Sen. Daines’ bill are “wilder than half of all national parks” in the Lower 48 states. The Big Snowies are wilder and quieter than 95 percent of all national parks, and the Sapphires and West Pioneers have more intact wildlife communities than 95 percent of Lower 48 national parks.

Yet another false claim the Senator likes to mention is that his bill is necessary because congress has failed to resolve Montana’s wilderness study areas. This deceptive argument discredits countless Montanans who have worked together over the last several decades to find resolution for these uniquely wild places.

In 1983, Congress passed the bi-partisan “Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Management Act,” which permanently protected most of the Taylor-Hilgard WSA, straddling the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Custer-Gallatin National Forests. That bill also removed protections on the 21,000-acre Mount Henry WSA, on the Kootenai National Forest, and thousands of acres elsewhere in Montana. This compromise was the result of extensive collaboration and numerous public meetings.
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History provides insight into what could happen once this bill is signed. In 1986, Shell Oil attempted to purchase 49,000 acres of federal oil and gas lease claims in the Big Snowies. In 1996, Cominco attempted to develop new copper claims in the headwaters of Swimming Woman Creek, also in the Big Snowies. Both attempts were blocked because the Big Snowies were protected. Sen. Daines wants to remove that protection.

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In 1988, Congress passed the bi-partisan “Montana Natural Resources Protection and Utilization Act” by overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate. That bill would have protected 1.43 million acres of public land and opened more than four million acres of land for development. 

President Reagan did not veto this bill because Congress would have likely overturned a veto. After all, Congress had overwhelmingly approved the measure by a simple voice vote. For this reason, Reagan “pocket vetoed” the bill, which means he refused to sign it before the congressional session expired. Therefore, a bi-partisan compromise was prevented from becoming law.

In total, nine bills have been written to address public lands within WSAs since 1984. Each of these bills protected some lands while opening other lands for development. One of those bills was the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which would have resolved two WSAs on USFS land and seven more on BLM land. Sen. Daines opposed that bill, making him as responsible as anyone for leaving these areas in limbo.

If Sen. Daines wants Congress to take action on these areas yet again, then he should ensure such action reflects a compromise similar to previous democratic processes. He should hold a series of public meetings, listen to different points of view, and act on the information he has gathered. He should advance a bill that is built through a credible public process and reflects a compromise among diverse interests. 

In short, Sen. Daines should stop campaigning for a top-down, lopsided overhaul of Montana public land management and start listening to Montanans who are ready and willing to find common ground. We ask for that kind of inclusive, balanced, and transparent approach in an open letter at ourlandourlegacy.org. If you haven't already signed, please do now

- Gabriel Furshong, MWA deputy director