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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Sep 11 2020

Legislature Highlights Collaboration in Final Report on Wilderness Study Areas

Now it’s up to Congress to embrace a collaborative approach to WSA management

On Tuesday, September 9, the Montana State Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council (EQC) released SJ20: The Fate of Wilderness Study Areas, its final report on the history, character, uses, and local significance of Montana’s Forest Service-managed Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). The report’s publication concludes a process initiated in 2019 by the Montana Legislature to address the future of these WSAs.

In the final report, which is unchanged from the draft report published in July, the EQC highlighted past and existing collaborative efforts to determine the future of all of Monana’s Forest Service WSAs: the Big Snowies, Blue Joint, Middle Fork Judith, Sapphire, Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn, Ten Lakes, and West Pioneer. These areas total more than 660,000 acres of some of Montana’s wildest country and are critical sources of clean water, vital wildlife habitat, and cherished recreation areas for vast numbers of Montanans.

Despite their importance, these areas have been threatened for years. Back in 2018, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte each introduced legislation that sought to remove all protections from these WSAs. (Gianforte also introduced a companion bill that would have stripped protection from an additional 24 WSAs managed by the Bureau of Land Management.) They introduced these top-down bills without seeking public input and when confronted, scrambled to find cover for their legislation by holding sham meetings with handpicked supporters.

Thanks to you, these legislative land-grabs were stopped dead in their tracks. Thousands of you signed an open letter calling on Congress to ditch top-down one-size-fits-all legislation and embrace a local, collaborative approach to decide how WSAs should be managed. You showed up at Daines’ and Gianforte’s “public” meetings to demand that they actually listen to Montanans. You sent countless emails and made countless phone calls to make it clear that Montanans overwhelmingly supported individual solutions for individual WSAS. 

All your hard work paid off. Daines’ and Gianforte’s legislation bit the dust, and a recent bipartisan poll from the University of Montana found that 75% of Montanans support maintaining or increasing protection for WSAs, while just 8% support eliminating protections. What’s more, that same study found that a whoping 81% of Montanans favor management of these areas for recreation and wildlife habitat, not for extractive activities like mining and oil and gas, the interests that stand to gain the most from the top-down full-scale removal of protections. 

And now, the EQC’s report shows that the Montana Legislature has listened to the people and officially recognized the history and power of collaborative efforts to secure sustainable and community-supported futures for Forest Service WSAs.

While it was developing the report, the EQC invited significant public testimony from conservationists, recreationists, timber industry representatives, and other stakeholders, the vast majority of whom supported collaboration. During the process, committee members repeatedly expressed a desire for Montana’s delegation to support a collaborative approach to determining the future of WSAs. While the council stopped short of officially recommending that Congress pursue local collaborative efforts, it has set the table for us to call on our federal delegation to do just that. Now, it’s important that we keep the pressure on our delegation to embrace the types of solutions that Montanans support.

In prepared remarks delivered by a staffer during the final EQC hearing in July, Sen. Jon Tester said “It’s not just that through collaborative effort everyone’s voice is heard, although that is important. It’s that a coalition of voices working together in concert are stronger and build more durable solutions for communities than if folks were just looking out for themselves.”

Daines and Gianforte have thus far refused to firmly endorse a collaborative approach. In remarks delivered via letter, Daines said only that he would “intend to respect the state legislature’s findings,” while Gianforte claimed his 2018 legislation was “a starting point” and doubled down on his untruthful claim of “holding public meetings about the (WSA) issue across Montana.”

We strongly urge Daines and Gianforte to join Tester in supporting local collaborative efforts to develop sustainable solutions for Montana’s WSAs. Each one of these areas has unique values and character that are deserving of individualized management. Montanans across the state have clearly demonstrated that top-down, one-size-fits-all legislation is not the way to manage these special wild places, and it’s time our full delegation acted on the overwhelming wishes of their constituents. 

There will certainly be opportunities to take action moving forward, and we'll let you know what you can do to continue the effort to support our WSAs. 

Aubrey Berrtam
Eastern Montana Field Director

Aubrey works with communities to protect eastern Montana’s prairies, badlands, and island mountain ranges. She spends her time skiing, hiking, and running, volunteering with civic organizations in Billings, exploring public lands with her two dogs, and napping on the couch with her two cats.
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