Opinions were divided Wednesday during a public discussion hosted by congressional candidate Kathleen Williams on the future of four dozen Wilderness Study Areas across Montana.
While most voiced opposition to the sweeping release of the state’s WSAs proposed by Rep. Greg Gianforte, nearly all said Montanans could find common ground and deliver a bottom-up solution that works for the state and its diverse interests.
As it stands, Williams said, opportunities to weigh in on the issue have been limited.
“We wanted to provide that opportunity,” said Williams, who is challenging Gianforte for his seat. “It’s bringing those perspectives together that I think really generates long-lasting solutions.”
The Wilderness Act of 1964 established new wilderness and areas to be studied as such. Williams said it gave Congress 15 years to determine the future of those studied landscapes, and the agencies complied with the process and made their recommendations.
Congress acted on those recommendations in 1988, designating 1.4 million acres as wilderness in Montana while releasing 4 million acres from further consideration. But the measure was vetoed by then-President Ronald Reagan in an Election Eve maneuver intended to help Conrad Burns prevail in his U.S. Senate bid.
While the state’s 44 wilderness study areas remain intact, Gianforte has introduced two bills that would release them all from further consideration as wilderness. His bills do not designate any new wilderness, and they came as a surprise to many, including the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers.
“When you start talking about designations or changing things with public lands, hunters and anglers are going to have their hackles up,” said Adam Shaw, the organization’s president. “When this legislation was announced, it came as a surprise to many of us, particularly Hellgate Hunters and Anglers. We were not asked to participate or asked what our viewpoints might be.”
That lack of public process and input has led many to criticize Gianforte’s bills as a top-down approach and a favor to certain, conservative user groups.
While many at Wednesday’s discussion agreed that a decision must be made on the future of the study areas included in Gianforte’s bills, they said releasing the acreage without broad public input was a public disservice.
“What I’m advocating here is an open, public, transparent process of engagement in order to decide the future – and I do think it’s time we made a decision and move on,” said panelist Alex Philp. “I think it’s very important to the economic well-being of this state, as well as the state’s preparing and planning for the effects of climate change.”
Philp, a former scientist and park ranger with the National Park Service, said any decision regarding the future of the study areas should be grounded in science, not emotion and politics. With human development spreading wider and climate change altering the landscape, species will need room to adapt and compete in a changing world.
Skip Kowalski, a retired wildlife biologist with the Forest Service, agreed. He said science has evolved over the past 40 years, and what didn’t meet the definition of wilderness in the 1970s may do so now.
“From a wildlife standpoint, landscapes are the name of the game,” Kowalski said. “Habitat connectivity, linkages, watershed integrity and security – wild areas are a very important component, not just for human recreation, but for wildlife as well. With the WSAs, we still have some areas that are relatively intact and can be incorporated into a landscape kind of analysis.”
Public lands played a central theme in last year’s special congressional race between Gianforte and Rob Quist, and it has re-emerged as November nears.
Williams scheduled Wednesday’s roundtable in Missoula several weeks ago. On Monday, Gianforte announced a similar event in Lewistown. It too was held Wednesday and included the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Wood Products Association and the Montana Wilderness Association, among others.
“I saw that Rep. Gianforte was having a similar meeting this morning, which I assume was some sort of knee-jerk reaction to this event,” said Shaw. “When we have our delegates pushing legislation without any input and coming back later and holding these meetings, or not holding them in the interim, then they don’t understand our position.”
Mike Jeffords, president of the Montana Trail Riders Association, stands behind Gianforte’s legislation to release the WSAs, calling them a “huge thorn of contention” among motorized users in the Bitterroot Valley.
He said motorized users have gotten a bad reputation over the years as being hard on the environment and wildlife, though he blamed the Forest Service and poor trail construction for erosion and impacts to the landscape.
“There were many falsehoods and lies spread about the OHV community and how we were using these wilderness study areas and how we were denigrating the properties of the areas,” he said. “If these areas are opened back up to proper management by the Forest Service, they would be a boon to the Bitterroot economy and a showcase for the state.”
Ben Horan, executive director of Mountain Bike Missoula, agreed with Jeffords that wilderness study areas should be considered for a range of uses. But he also suggested that resilient solutions and resilient landscapes require a “coalition of champions.”
“These collaborative efforts must recognize that conservation, recreation and access is not a zero sum conversation,” he said. “There are real attacks on the nature of public lands. In order to protect these resources we all cherish, it takes a group working together to come up with solutions.”
Jake Kreilick, owner of the Lake Missoula Tea Company and member of Montana Businesses for the Outdoors, urged Williams to move beyond land-use politics during her campaign and advocate for protecting the state’s remaining wild places.
“Please look beyond the politics of our state and region and know there’s overwhelming social support in this country for protecting our wildest places,” Kreilick said. “These are not easy issues given the level of contentiousness in our state. But we still have a lot to fight for, and the greatest economic and social value for our state lies in protecting these places.”