As the 2020 campaign season ramps up, a group of diverse Montanans is adding advertising pressure to their efforts to get Sen. Steve Daines to support a collaborative wilderness bill.

Last week, members of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project launched a statewide advertising campaign encouraging Daines to push for a committee hearing on the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.

Sen. Jon Tester reintroduced the bill in June, but it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. Daines is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would hear the bill before it could advance to the Senate floor.

The act would add 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Mission Mountain wilderness areas, open 2,200 acres of snowmobiling near Ovando and preserve mountain bike access to more than 3,800 acres around Spread Mountain.

Already, the Southwestern Crown Collaborative has encouraged timber cutting that kept 160 people employed in the area and brought in $52 million annually to the regional economy, according to the Southwestern Crown Collaborative. Wood-based businesses that are managing to hold on in the Swan Valley would be aided by future timber-harvest projects enabled by the steward project’s proposals.

“Folks in the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project spent more than 15 years making sure that Montanans of all stripes would benefit from this bill, and that’s why it enjoys the kind of support it does,” said Ben Horan, executive director of MTB Missoula, a mountain biking advocacy group.

Other groups that support the act include Pyramid Mountain Lumber, the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized-use advocacy group, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, International Mountain Bicycling Association, and the Powell, Missoula, and Lewis and Clark county commissions.

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project is sponsoring social media ads and billboards in Billings and Bozeman – Daines has a house in Bozeman. Additionally, Jack Rich of Rich’s Montana Guest Ranch in the Seeley Lake area recorded a radio spot to be featured on conservative talk radio and Christian stations across the state. Rich is a member of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project steering committee.

“Like 73% of Montanans, I support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, a proposal my neighbors and I worked on for more than 10 years,” Rich said in the radio spot. “We're asking for Sen. Daines' support because this bill is good for business, great for snowmobilers, and essential for keeping the Blackfoot a legendary destination for hunting and fishing. Join us, Sen. Daines.”

As Rich indicated, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act has been bandied about for a long time. By itself, it’s been around for three years because Tester introduced it early in the last Congress. In 2018, the Public Lands, Forests, and Mining subcommittee heard the bill but didn’t take action, so the bill died.

Before that, much of the current Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship proposal was part of Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, first introduced in 2009, which included similar efforts in the Kootenai and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests.

During the past eight months since Tester reintroduced the bill, members of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project have pumped out more op-ed letters, asking both Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte to help pass the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act at Tester’s behest.

But so far, neither politician has thrown his weight behind the act.

In September, Gianforte told Montana This Morning he “looked forward to learning more about the [Blackfoot Stewardship Act] … so we can figure out what the local community wants to do.”

On Friday, when the Missoula Current asked whether Daines supports the act, Daines’ spokesperson Katie Schoettler said in an email, “Senator Daines appreciates the collaborative effort from stakeholders involved and is working through remaining issues from Montanans.”

That answer corresponds with Lee Boman’s impression of where Daines stands on the issue. Boman, a retired JCPenny executive, is also a member of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project steering committee.

“Senator Daines has been aware of this for quite some time,” Boman said. “When he was still a Congressman, I met him at a meet-and-greet in Lincoln where I showed him a picture of Grizzly Basin, and we talked about how logical it appears to make that part of the Bob (Marshall Wilderness). He has always been interested, but I can’t say that I ever remember him expressing support.”

The members of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project steering committee deny that the timing of the advertising effort is related to Daines being up for reelection in November.

Horan, a Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project steering committee member, said the timing is based more on rumors that some in Congress are trying to put together another big public lands package similar to the one passed in early 2019.

“We have heard from (Daines’) office that he supports this kind of effort,” said Ben Horan. “Right now, the time is good to move things forward. We see opportunities for a larger sort of public lands legislative package and we’d like to see this included. The Senate is where we need to get some traction on this.”

No wilderness bill has had an easy time passing Congress. From the original Wilderness Act to the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness that finally passed in 2015, the bills that create wilderness have been repeatedly introduced before the needed stars aligned to push them through.

But wilderness creation has gotten more difficult over the decades as the nation has become more populated and the Congress more divided, omnibus bills aside. But some say that preserving public lands can still cut across partisan divides.

That’s what Boman hopes.

“Fifty years from now, it’ll be one of those things that people will say ‘wow, I’m glad they did that.’ It will be obviously more important 50 years from now than it is right now. But it makes a lot of sense,” Boman said. “I’ve been involved in this for almost a decade, and I think it’s the most important efforts I’ve ever been involved with. And I will celebrate the day it’s passed.”

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