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Viewpoint: Montana’s wild green washing machines tell only partial truths

Practice what you preach. In their 6/18/22 op-ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Wild Montana (formerly Montana Wilderness Association), the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Montana Wildlife Federation preach that Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) should be protected.

As support they tout the University of Montana’s 2022 Voter Survey finding 72% of Montanans want to keep protection for Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) “rather than top-down legislation seeking to slash protections from some of Montana’s wildest places.” And just “a measly 6% want to eliminate protections.”

These groups preach protection for WSAs but in practice they are actually part of the “measly 6%.” They justify this by saying it’s okay to drop protections for some of “Montana’s wildest places” as long as it’s done by “locally-driven collaborative process.” They are wrong. These National Public Lands belong to all Americans and not just a few self-appointed collaborators using a top-down approach embodied in legislation.

Wild Montana’s history on WSA protection represents the measly 6%. They supported the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which ended WSA status for the Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek WSAs on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in eastern Montana and forced the BLM to assess the oil potential in other WSAs, angering conservationists.

They supported Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act agreeing to remove protections from nearly the entire 151,000 acre West Pioneer WSA, the second largest in Montana, removing part of the Sapphire WSA and releasing 68,000 acres in seven BLM WSAs. They supported Wilderness designation for just 29% of the 400,000 acres of WSAs considered. More recently, on the EIS for BLM WSAs in Montana they recommended that several of these be opened to other uses and their status as WSAs ended.

Now Wild Montana and GYC are claiming the Gallatin Forest Partnership protects the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA but fail to reveal their proposal would end WSA protections for 53,000 acres and open it to non-wilderness uses including ATVs, snowmobiles and even logging and mining. This includes the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages, the most valuable wildlife habitat in the Gallatin Range which has been proposed for protection for more than 100 years.

All 155,000 acres of the WSA have been proposed for Wilderness designation by a former Secretary of the Interior, a former Superintendent of Yellowstone, top scientists and founders and former leaders of GYC.

These groups have decided that preaching makes good fund-raising material but their practices sell Montana’s wildlands, wildlife and WSAs short.  

Did the University of Montana survey include the trade-offs involved in proposals like the Gallatin Forest Partnership, the Lincoln Prosperity Project and the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act? Or did they just ask if people support the proposed Wilderness in these plans and overly broad statements that it would protect the Blackfoot River? If so, they used incomplete information.

I doubt that 77% of the people really support removing WSA protections for more than a third of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA and that 83% support opening up 48,000 acres to logging and roadbuilding inside proposed additions to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wildernesses in the Blackfoot-Clearwater watershed as the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act would do.  

The conservation preachers end their op-ed by saying that elected officials must heed the wishes of their constituents. These groups should do the same and practice what they preach. Wild Montana and GYC are only telling people the parts they want you to hear. Everybody is free to be for whatever they want and we should respect other opinions, but we should also insist on getting all the information.

Otherwise, we might get soaked by a “wild green-washing machine.”

Mike Bader is a natural resource consultant, researcher and author in Missoula, Montana. A former seasonal Yellowstone ranger and firefighter he writes about natural resource issues throughout the western U.S.