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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Sep 28 2018

History as Our Guide: 1988 Wilderness Bill

In the second installment of our series on previous WSA legislation, we examine a sweeping bill that sailed through Congress

“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.

Currently, Montana has 44 wilderness study areas. Seven of these are managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and were created by a bi-partisan act of congress in November of 1977. The remaining 37 are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and were created at various points in time by this agency, not by Congress, as a result of public input and extensive ecological research.

Congress passed 29 wilderness bills during President Reagan’s administration, but he only signed 28 into law. The one bill he didn’t sign, during eight years in office, was a bi-partisan act from Montana that would have protected 1.4 million acres as Wilderness and over half a million acres for recreation and future wilderness consideration while authorizing non-wilderness uses on millions of other acres. This legislation also authorized a major land exchange and acquisition of Plum  Creek Timber Co. (railroad grant) lands throughout the Gallatin Range Wilderness Study Area.  Thirty years later, we’re still dealing with the fallout from Reagan’s decision to pocket-veto that 1988 bill that today stands as the gold standard for how we resolve our wilderness study areas.

In 1979, the U.S. Forest Service completed studies known as the Roadless Area Review and Evaluations (“RARE II”), which were supposed to provide Congress with information and analysis necessary to address the future of 62 million acres of public land nationwide and more than six million acres in Montana. During the two congressional sessions immediately following the review, Congressman Pat Williams wrote and passed a bill creating the Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area in 1980. He then teamed up with all three members of Montana’s delegation, including Republican Congressman Ron Marlenee, to pass the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Management Act in 1983.

The notion that there has been no action toward resolving the status of WSAs is a falsehood that Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte are propagating with little regard for the long history of compromise and collaboration that have gone into deciding the fate of our public lands.

As these bills were being written and passed, a larger legislative pursuit, however, was underway, proceeding at a slower and more uncertain pace than Williams’ other bills.

In 1983, Congress held field hearings in Anaconda, Great Falls, and Missoula to document citizen input on the management of wilderness candidate areas and roadless public land, which would then inform congressional action. Over the ensuing five years, Williams and Senators Max Baucus and John Melcher developed a grand compromise based on that citizen input. At last, the “Montana Natural Resources and Protection Act” was introduced in both the House and Senate in 1987, addressing millions of acres of public land in Big Sky Country. All told, the bill would have protected 2.1 million acres of wilderness and wild public lands while legally authorizing motorized recreation and resource development in just over four million acres of roadless national forest lands within the state of Montana.  Remaining wildlands could again be considered for wilderness in future forest plan revisions, a process dubbed “soft release” by decision makers. 

The bill addressed all seven remaining WSAs that had been created by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977. The bill removed these seven from WSA status and permanently protected six of them. The other two WSAs created with the 1977 bill had already been resolved with the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Management Act of 1983 (read part one in this series). 

Years and years of negotiation paid off in 1988. The bill sailed through Congress, passing by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate. In fact, the majorities were so robust that the final bill was approved in the House by voice vote, a procedure only used for non-controversial measures.

Remarkably, the bill’s popularity was the primary reason why Reagan ignored the bill instead of exercising a presidential veto. If the President had directly vetoed the bill, then both houses of Congress could have overturned it by two-thirds majority votes. Instead, he chose a “pocket veto,” refusing to sign the bill until the Congressional session officially expired at the end of the year. 

It is widely accepted that Reagan pocket-vetoed the bill at the request of Senate candidate Conrad Burns, who was running against incumbent Senator John Melcher in the election that November. Burns won the election. Thus, a political favor to Burns dealt a death blow to a once-in-a-generation compromise on five-and-a-half million acres of public land.

It goes without saying that, if the bill had been signed by the President, we would not be debating the status of national forest WSAs today. Instead, we have over 600,000 acres of national forest land still designated as WSAs awaiting a final determination by Congress. 

The notion that there has been no action toward resolving the status of WSAs is a falsehood that Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte are propagating with little regard for the long history of compromise and collaboration that have gone into deciding the fate of our public lands. They continue to offer a false choice between doing away with WSAs and doing nothing at all despite the many examples of past legislation, including the 1988 bill, that demonstrate the possibility and popularity of the middle ground approach that we're calling on our senator and congressman to follow. 

- Gabriel Furshong, executive deputy director, is leaving MWA today after 12 years of inspired and inspiring work on behalf of Montana's wildlands. We're going to miss his camaraderie, keen intellect, and bold thinking. We'll especially miss his electric blue Outa Ware pants. Thanks for everything, Gabe, and see you on down the trail!