Opinion: Daines’ bill strips away public land protections without public input

George Gaines is the owner of Chilton Skis in Missoula.

Our public lands support the businesses, customers, employees and way of life that are the fabric of life for Montanans. Studies show Montana’s outdoor economy supports more than 71,000 jobs and generates $286 million in state and local revenue. A recent survey states that over 70% of businesses in the state claim the outdoor way of life as a significant factor in their decision to be here in Montana. My business is part of that 70%.

Because our public lands are such a critical piece of our economy, we believe that decisions about how our public lands are used and the designations by which they are managed should be guided by local Montanans working collaboratively in an inclusive process.

Chilton Skis encourages the lifestyle of people who appreciate and understand the value of the wild and unique places in their backyard. Some of them depend on these wilderness areas for their livelihoods; some depend on them for their way of life. The recreation culture in Montana is represented by skiers, hikers, bikers, hunters, and fishermen. People who support our business depend on the protections of these places, but they also expect that decisions about these public lands are held to a standard of public process.

As a part of Business for Montana’s Outdoors – which represents 170 businesses responsible for more than 4,600 jobs – we believe that when public lands decisions are made from the top down, without local input, it creates uncertainty in our businesses and removes our communities from being a part of the process by which their livelihoods will be affected.

That’s why we were disappointed to learn that Montana’s Senator Steve Daines introduced a bill that would remove protections on nearly half a million acres of public lands in Montana without public comment. The intent of this bill is to remove protections from the Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in the Bitterroot, the Sapphire WSA east of Hamilton, the Middle Fork Judith WSA, the Big Snowies WSA south of Lewistown and the West Pioneer WSA east of Wisdom. For residents of Missoula and the Bitterroot, the Blue Joint WSA provides access to some of the most beautiful, pristine and dramatic backcountry ski terrain around.

The title of Senator Daines’ bill is misleading: “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act.” At its core, the bill takes a broad sweep at eliminating protections on these five Montana wilderness study areas (WSAs) without public meetings or engaging diverse stakeholder dialogue. This sets a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of Montana’s tradition of collaborative land management, and community-driven solutions.

Of great concern is the uncertainty of whether mining or industrial development would now be allowed on these lands. Daines’ bill opens the door for potential oil and gas development on hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands, threatening local businesses that are important contributors to a $7.1 billion outdoor economy.

We respectfully urge Senator Daines to rethink this sweeping legislative approach, and encourage him to engage the Montana communities and the people that use these places and depend on them as part of their way of life. We believe that solutions for public lands management needs to be accomplished through a public process – starting at a local level, and involving diverse voices specifically in the communities that surround the five WSAs in question.

Instead of a blanket move that will remove protections from our public lands and threaten our outdoor economy, we’d like to see our leaders in Congress working together to do a better job of making sure our public lands have the resources to be properly managed, the insight on the best sustainable uses, and all the right people at the table contributing to those decisions.

George Gaines is the owner of Chilton Skis in Missoula