Reason to Celebrate as Daines’ and Gianforte’s WSA Bills Bite the Dust
MWA members and supporters stared down and quelled one of the biggest threats to public lands Montana has ever faced
Just two weeks after I started my job last year as MWA’s new executive director, Senator Steve Daines dropped a bombshell.
He introduced a bill to eliminate the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneers, and Sapphires Wilderness Study Areas(WSAs), as well as half of the Blue Joint WSA. The bill threatened the biggest rollback of protected public land in Montana history. A few months later, the threat nearly doubled in size as Congressman Greg Gianforte introduced a bill mirroring Daines’ and another bill eliminating an additional 24 WSAs.
All told, these three bills would have stripped protection from more than 800,000 acres of Montana’s wildest public lands, lands we depend on for clean water, healthy fish and wildlife populations, and much of our $7 billion outdoor recreation economy.
We’re happy and relieved to announce those bills are now dead, thanks to thousands of Montanans who made phone calls to Daines’ and Gianforte’s offices, submitted op-eds and letters-to-the-editor, attended county commission meetings, and signed an open letter to our congressional delegation calling for a much different approach to resolving our wilderness study areas (WSAs) than the one Daines and Gianforte took.
When Daines introduced his bill in December 2017, we knew that our response had to be commensurate to the threat we faced. That’s why we organized a group of Montanans dedicated to celebrating and defending our state’s 44 WSAs and other wildlands. This group came together as Our Land, Our Legacy. On February 7, we held a teleconference with a number of reporters around the state to announce the launch of this group. That afternoon, stories about Our Land, Our Legacy appeared in news outlets across Montana and around the country.
It’s been an amazing first year for me at MWA. It has opened my eyes to the power we hold and share when we unite in protecting our most cherished public lands.
Two days after the launch of Our Land, Our Legacy, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Daines’ bill. He claimed he had the support of Montanans for the bill, even though he hadn’t held a single public meeting or provided any opportunity for Montanans to weigh in on the legislation.
It wouldn’t take long for us to prove him wrong.
As the Senate hearing was wrapping up, a Ravalli County Commission meeting was just getting started in Hamilton. The commission had convened the meeting after a number of MWA members called foul on the commissioners for sending Daines a letter in support of stripping protection from the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs without providing county residents the opportunity to have a say on the matter. Thanks to the quick and robust grassroots organizing MWA staff did, some 250 people showed up to the meeting, even though the commission scheduled the meeting just a few days before. The commission was caught off guard by the number of people and was forced to move the venue to the county fairgrounds.
Over the next few hours, one Montanan after another testified in opposition to Daines’ bill. By the end, around 80 percent of those who testified and signed in to the meeting expressed opposition to Daines’ bill.
Over the next few months, opposition to Daines’ and Gianforte’s bills escalated and spread across the state. Over the course of seven months:
- Nearly 3,000 Montanans signed an open letter to our Congressional delegation calling for a balanced, bipartisan, and collaborative approach to our WSAs that includes a diversity of interests.
- Montanans made well over 1,500 calls to the offices of our Congressional delegation in opposition to Daines and Gianforte’s WSA legislation.
- Montanans submitted more than 100 op-eds and letters-to-the-editor to Montana’s newspapers in opposition to the legislation.
- Governor Steve Bullock sent Daines and Gianforte a letter in April requesting they change their approach to the resolution of our WSAs. “I am particularly troubled by the lack of public engagement used to formulate these [WSA] proposals,” the letter states.
- The cities of Whitefish and Helena, Missoula County, and the joint city-county commissions from Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deerlodge all sent letters to Daines and Gianforte expressing concern with the legislation and requesting public meetings.
- 110 of the 182 people who attended a Beaverhead County Commission meeting in July voted in opposition to the WSA bills in a straw poll held at the meeting.
Montanans’ displeasure with Daines’ and Gianforte’s bill became undeniable in May, when the University of Montana released its bipartisan 2018 Public Land Survey, which revealed that 81 percent of Montanans opposed the legislation and a scant 11 percent supported it.
Gianforte’s two WSAs bill received a hearing last summer in the House Natural Resources Committee, but that’s as far his bills went, while Daines’ bill didn’t go any farther than the February hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Of course, Daines and Gianforte could reintroduce those bills in the next Congress, but our success over the past year makes me feel all the more confident that we can fend off those potential threats as well.
It’s been an amazing first year for me at MWA. It has opened my eyes to the power we hold and share when we unite in protecting our most cherished public lands. I’m sure we’ll face plenty of other big threats in 2019, but 2018 proved to me that we can stare down the biggest of threats and still keep our magnificent state of Montana wild.
- Ben Gabriel, MWA executive director