Moving Closer to a Major Milestone for WSAs
The Environmental Quality Council releases its report on wilderness study areas
For years, state and federal lawmakers have threatened Montana’s wilderness study areas (WSAs) by seeking to eliminate their protective designations in one fell swoop.
Today, these attacks have been dealt another blow.
After a year of study, community discussion, and testimony from experts and the public, the Montana State Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council (EQC) has released a draft report describing the impact of a collaborative and place-based approach to determining the future of Montana’s Forest Service WSAs.
This draft report is a world away from the path the Montana Legislature took in 2017, when it passed House Joint Resolution 9 (HJ9). That resolution, introduced by public lands transfer advocate Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman), called for the immediate and sweeping de-designation of all Forest Service WSAs, without any public comment, scrutiny, or conversation. Despite the public uproar it raised and the thousands of you who contacted their legislators to oppose HJ9, the resolution passed, providing cover for Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte to introduce a suite of federal legislation in late 2017 and early 2018 that would have stripped WSA designation from nearly 800,000 acres of Montana’s wildest and most pristine landscapes, all without providing the public with a single opportunity to weigh in.
The public opposition to the proposed legislation was swift, forceful, and unequivocal. Across Montana, citizens - led by MWA members and supporters - organized rallies, made phone calls, wrote letters, and showed up at astroturf “public” meetings organized by Daines and Gianforte, making it absolutely clear that they would not tolerate sweeping top-down efforts to strip protections from nearly one million acres of WSAs.
That effort didn’t just slow down anti-WSA legislation. It changed the conversation and forced Daines, Gianforte, and state legislators to backpedal in the face of overwhelming public pressure.
Now, almost three years after the initial legislation, the EQC has taken an important step toward recognizing that top-down, one-size-fits-all legislation is not the way to manage our public lands. Instead, the draft report describes the strong collaborative effort to determine WSA management, acknowledging that place-based groups have a history of developing strong solutions for difficult public lands issues. We have known for a long time that such an approach is the best way to shape the future of WSAs, and it’s testament to the hard work of many to see that knowledge reflected in the Council’s report.
The power of a collaborative process rests in bringing Montanans with direct, deep knowledge of the places at issue together to learn about each other’s perspectives, values, and interests, acknowledging that they are all legitimate. This dialogue invariably uncovers shared values and makes it possible to identify the appropriate balance between forest management, recreation, conservation, and economic development. Folks once on opposite sides of an issue become advocates for each other’s interests and leaders who can build widespread public buy-in for the solutions they’ve developed. This real, honest, and hard-won collaboration - not top-down, one-size-fits-all legislation - leads to durable, community-supported solutions
The EQC’s draft report is an important step toward a collaborative approach, but it’s not the end of the road. While the draft report describes the collaboration that has taken place to this point, it stops short of explicitly recommending that Montana’s congressional delegation embrace a collaborative approach to determining the future of our Forest Service WSAs.
We would like the EQC to make that request explicit in the final report.
Additionally, the Council should ensure the final report recommends that the delegation endorse and pursue community-supported outcomes that reflect that our public lands are the backbone of our outdoor heritage, a source of clean drinking water, and critical habitat for Montana’s fish and wildlife. Each WSA, from the Sapphires to the Big Snowies to Ten Lakes, is unique, and the communities who know, love, and use them deserve significant input into their management through a process that is public, transparent, inclusive, and respectful of existing collaborative efforts.
We’ve drafted an open letter encouraging the EQC to call on Montana’s congressional delegation to strongly support collaborative efforts to determine the future of Montana’s WSAs. I invite you to sign it, so we can once again show our delegation just how strongly Montanans support collaboration.
The EQC has done much good work over the past year, and we want to thank the council for its efforts. Now, we encourage it to make its final report stronger by explicitly calling for our delegation in Washington to embrace a collaborative approach to determining the future of Montana’s Forest Service WSAs, one that also recognizes the diverse benefits that wild places provide our communities.
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.