Gianforte Holds Invite-Only Discussion, Claims it’s a Public Meeting
Participants in WSA discussion agree REAL public input is needed
This week, Representative Greg Gianforte hosted an invite-only meeting to discuss his two bills to eliminate protections from wilderness study areas (WSAs), comprising 800,000 acres of Montana’s wild and undeveloped public lands, the largest removal of protected public lands in Montana’s history. Following Sen. Daines’ lead, Gianforte introduced the legislation back in March without the benefit of a single public meeting. Since then, a bipartisan poll has revealed that just 11% of Montanans support his approach, and thousands of Montanans have asked he and Daines to first withdraw their bills, then hold public meetings, and pursue a compromise that includes permanent protection for some of these areas.
On Wednesday, the representative planned to take a small step forward. He convened an invite-only meeting with 12 different organizations to discuss his bills. Some organizations were invited, including MWA, while requests from other organizations like Backcountry Horsemen and Montana Conservation Voters were denied. Then, less than 24 hours before the meeting was set to begin, he took a big step backward. He falsely claimed that the small group discussion was actually public and that anyone was welcome to attend. Not surprisingly, only about six members of the public attended on short notice. No matter what the Congressman may claim, it is clear that the meeting on Wednesday was not open to the public.
This invite only meeting is part of a disturbing trend in which elected officials hold tele-town halls with screened questions instead of actual town hall meetings or host a “field hearing” without allowing public comment to be heard, as Gianforte did recently in Hamilton.
Thankfully, Montanans know better, and we remain concerned that despite calls and letters from cities, counties, Governor Bullock, collaborative groups, and major newspapers in Montana, Gianforte continues to keep public land owners at arm's length.
In the basement of the Fergus County Complex, we convened around a table and sat behind the appropriate name markers. The Congressmen opened the meeting by briefly claiming that his bills were a moderate approach to our public land WSAs. Any of us who work collaboratively to find solutions for our public lands realize that stripping protection from every single WSA in the bill (all 800,000 acres) is far from moderate. The fact is Representative Gianforte’s bills are extreme. We asserted that Wilderness protections must be part of the solution moving forward.
Most importantly, we asked that the bills first be withdrawn so that diverse interests can pursue a bipartisan solution that includes Wilderness protection in some areas and a different management approach in others.
On Wednesday, we caught just a glimpse of how this could work. Diverse individuals around the table shared a similar sentiment that working together to find solutions that include protection for our wildest lands is important, and everyone agreed collaboration was a key ingredient. Over and over again, this message was shared with the Congressman. But was the Congressman actually listening?
We do not know what Rep. Gianforte and Sen. Daines have planned this fall, but we certainly know there will be more work to do. We need our members, supporters, and Montanans of all stripes to continue showing up and expressing our desire for these bills to be withdrawn and for public meetings to be held. We know many of these areas are more wild than most National Parks and they deserve permanent protection. We won’t stop working until they have it.
- Amy Robinson, MWA interim conservation director