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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Feb 27 2015

Taking the Long View

Compromise has always been part of the equation that delivers new wilderness

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In December, our Congressional delegation united to protect some of Montana’s most cherished public lands. It was a longtime coming.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was included in an omnibus package of 70 public land bills that was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, a package that also included the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. Together, these two bills permanently protect more than 650,000 acres of public land in the Crown of the Continent, one of the most magnificent ecosystems on Earth.

The last time Congress passed a public lands omnibus bill was in 2009. That bill protected trails, established national parks, and designated two million acres of wilderness in dozens of states, but it didn’t include a lick of public land in Montana.

This time was different.

This time, Montana’s congressional delegation negotiated their differences and agreed to a compromise, just as they did to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act of 1983, the last time wilderness in Montana was designated. A look back on these two pieces of legislation reminds us that compromise has always been a part of the equation that delivers new wilderness.

In 1964, those we revere now as wilderness champions, including our own senators Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield, allowed new mineral claims to be staked in designated wilderness areas until the end of 1984. Sens. Metcalf and Mansfield accepted this compromise because it was necessary to pass the Wilderness Act.

In 1983, passage of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act, designating 254,653 acres of wilderness, included the removal of interim study protections from three wilderness candidate areas. These areas included the Mount Henry Wilderness Study Area (21,000 acres) in the Kootenai National Forest, Cowboy’s Heaven (approximately 26,000 acres) in the Gallatin National Forest, and the Tongue River Breaks Recommended Wilderness (approximately 2,000 acres) in the Custer National Forest. 

In that compromise, significantly more lands were protected (254,653 acres) under the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Act than were put at risk (49,000 acres). Still, the deal was hard for some to swallow.

Montanan Wilderness Association supported the deal, knowing we would continue defending those areas that had lost their protection as a result of the bill’s passage. We’ve so far been successful in protecting two of them.

In 2009, we helped persuade the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to recommend Cowboy’s Heaven for wilderness. This area links the Spanish Peaks and Beartrap Canyon areas of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. A portion of this area that lies on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is proposed for wilderness designation in Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

The Tongue River Breaks has not yet been developed. Thanks to our efforts, the U.S. Forest Service will consider this area for wilderness in its next forest planning process. 

Unfortunately, Mount Henry has not faired as well. Since 1983, the area has been roaded and logged, its wilderness qualities degraded.

Still, few conservationists would today argue that the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act was not worth the compromises that were made to pass the bill. I predict the same will be true of the Heritage Act 31 years from now.

The idea of placing public wild lands at further risk of development isn’t any easier for some to swallow now than it was in 1983. But the compromise struck over the Heritage Act represents an even better deal for Montanans than the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act did 31 years ago.

The Heritage Act places 208,000 acres of USFS and BLM land along the Front in a Conservation Management Area that prohibits new permanent road building or development and disallows any expansion of motorized use. The bill protects another 67,000 acres as Wilderness.

The compromise Sen. Jon Tester made with Sen. Daines to permanently protect 275,00 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front included the release of two BLM Wilderness Study Areas in eastern Montana – Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek. Those two areas total about 14,000 acres. The amendment also directed the BLM to assess the oil and gas potential of two additional WSAs near the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Bridge Coulee and Musselshell Breaks.

So, are these four areas poised for development? Thankfully, no.

Bridge Coulee (5,900 acres) and the Musselshell Breaks (8,650 acres) have not lost their WSA status. Even if an updated assessment reveals rich oil and gas deposits, only another act of Congress could remove their WSA status.

Buffalo Creek and Zook Creek are more vulnerable to development because they have lost their WSA status. But this change doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be developed. In many cases, the BLM continues to manage areas to maintain their wilderness character even after their WSA status changes.

Both Buffalo Creek and Zook Creek are located within the jurisdiction of the BLM’s Miles City Field Office, which is currently revising its Resource Management Plan. This plan outlines how the BLM will manage lands in southeast Montana for the next 15 to 30 years. The revision of this document gives us the perfect opportunity to influence how the BLM will manage these two areas following their release from WSA status.

Buffalo Creek and Zook Creek are both beautiful areas replete with colorful breaks, sandstone formations, and native prairie. They deserve permanent protection. MWA will diligently work towards that protection as we’ve worked the last several years to protect prairie wildlands throughout eastern Montana.

Just as we didn’t give up on the lands that served as a compromise in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act, we won’t give up on Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek. We will continue working for the protection of these areas and other prairie wildlands throughout eastern Montana.

The successful passage of the Heritage Act breaks a 31-year span of congressional inaction on Montana wilderness, a welcome and necessary first step. Forever protecting the Front clears the decks for consideration of other magnificent Montana wild lands that have stacked up following decades of congressional deadlock. From the Snowcrest Mountains to the wild Swan Range to the Big Snowies, we have a lot more work to do to conserve Montana’s priceless outdoor legacy.

For now, you can help protect Buffalo Creek and Zook Creek by writing to the BLM and asking them to close both of these areas to OHV use and coal leasing and to instead manage them for semi-primitive, non-motorized use. Email Mary Bloom, RMP Project Manager, at mbloom@blm.gov or write to the Miles City Field Office at 111 Garryowen Road, Miles City, MT 59301.

-John Gatchell, MWA conservation director and Cameron Sapp, MWA eastern Montana field representative