Montana conservationists announced a new coalition Monday to fight a bill by Republican Sen. Steve Daines to release five of the state’s wilderness study areas to oil and gas development, mining and new off-road vehicle use.

No longer would the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneer, Blue Joint and Sapphire areas be protected for eventual designation as wilderness areas. The senator has said the areas have been mismanaged in the past and should be opened to multiple uses.

Senate Bill 2206 will be heard by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday; Daines is a member of the committee. There have been no hearings on the bill in Montana.

Organizers of the new group, called Our Land Our Legacy, called on Daines to give Montanans a chance to say how they would like to see the five areas, which together cover a half-million acres, managed. That 700 square miles represents about half the acreage protected as wilderness study areas statewide.

If approved, the bill “would represent the biggest rollback of wilderness protection in Montana history,” said John Todd, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association.

“Montanans deserve a chance to make their voices known before Congress passes a bill,” Todd said during a statewide telephone call with reporters. “Our Land Our Legacy seeks to give a voice to these places.”

The group’s campaign will be waged via a new website and social media as well as more traditional means of protest, organizers said. The intent, according to Todd, is to “celebrate all 44 Montana wilderness study areas” and to protect the five targeted by Daines from release and development.

The group also will ask Montanans to sign an open letter to the state’s congressional delegation requesting they find a balanced, bipartisan resolution for all of the wilderness study areas.

"We believe Montanans should have a say when it comes to how our wildest places will be managed," the letter says. "Unfortunately, Senator Daines introduced his bill (S. 2206) without holding a single public meeting or town hall.

"We’re calling on our congressional delegation to find a balanced, bipartisan resolution for all of our wilderness study areas – including the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneer, Blue Joint, and Sapphire – places that are essential to our outdoor way of life."

“Our WSAs are critical for water quality, wildlife, and Montana's outdoor recreation economy,” said Hilary Eisen, policy director at Winter Widllands Alliance. “For these reasons and more, they deserve better than what Senator Daines has put forward.”

Eisen is also a member of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, a collaborative of local business owners, mountain bikers, hunters, conservationists, horseback riders, and other recreationists that recently released an agreement that includes recommendations on how they Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area should be managed in the future.

“The Gallatin Forest Partnership is one among many collaboratives around the state that are putting their differences aside and using ongoing forest planning processes to chart a path forward for our public lands,” Eisen said. “While the GFP is not focused on legislation at this time, it is a powerful example of what happens when Montanans work together.

“These types of efforts are the best way to resolve the status of WSAs, instead of some top-down, one-size-fits-all bill that ignores Montanans and ignores what makes each of these WSAs unique.”

Lewistown City Commissioner Dave Byerly was among those who spoke against Daines’ bill – and the lack of hearings in Montana – during Monday’s conference call.

“One of Lewistown’s greatest resources, and a huge source of pride for us, is the water we receive from the Big Snowies, which is some of the purest in the country,” Byerly said. “That purity is largely due to the protection we’ve given the Big Snowies WSA for the last 40 years. Since his bill could open the door to oil and gas development in the Big Snowies and threaten our water, it was very disappointing that Sen. Daines didn’t hold a single public meeting in Lewistown or anywhere else in the state to ask residents if this was something we wanted.”

Larch in fall splendor in the Sapphires Wilderness Study Area. (Montana Wilderness Association/Zack Porter)
Larch in fall splendor in the Sapphires Wilderness Study Area. (Montana Wilderness Association/Zack Porter)

“Our WSAs represent the best of Montana, and this bill sets a precedent that puts all of those areas at risk,” added Karen Aspevig Stevenson, who leads an annual hike into the Terry Badlands WSA near her home in Miles City. “Our outdoor legacy depends on these places, but Sen. Daines hasn’t given the people who use and cherish these places – hikers, hunters, anglers, backpackers, backcountry horsemen and women – a single opportunity to tell him how we’d like them managed for the long haul.”

Last week, residents of four counties – Fergus, Judith Basin, Beaverhead, and Ravalli – warned their county commissioners that they may have violated Montana’s open meeting law when they sent Daines a letter in support of removing protection from WSAs.

None of the counties, except Ravalli, held public meetings to discuss the letters before sending them. Ravalli’s meeting included two members of the public.

“This isn’t how we make decisions in Montana on the fate of our public lands,” says Chris Marchion, an inductee in the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame, board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and a lifelong hunter. “Sen. Daines not only sidestepped the public, he also ignored the wishes of our state legislature, which passed a joint resolution last year that said permanent protection should be on the table for many of our WSAs.”