Missoula County supports Blackfoot project; voices concern over WSA removal process

Grizzly Basin in the Swan Mountains. (Photo by Zack Porter)

Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday signed off on letters to the ranking members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee expressing their support for the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project.

Crafted by Sen. Jon Tester and a diverse coalition of stakeholders, the project represents nearly a decade of work, and it’s often lauded as a new, collaborative approach to the management of public lands.

“It’s a welcome opportunity when we can show support for a wide-ranging proposal backed by many diverse Montana communities,” commissioners wrote. “(The project) aims to address multiple challenges and opportunities in a single place-based collaborative effort.”

Tester introduced the measure last March, though the effort dates back to 2005 when a coalition of user groups, including snowmobilers, loggers and conservationists, among others, set out to reach consensus on the management of public lands in the greater Blackfoot Valley.

Among other things, the project looks to promote a sustainable timber economy and increase the pace and scale of forest restoration work. It would add 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas and open additional terrain to motorized recreation.

The proposal is scheduled for a committee hearing in the Senate on Wednesday.

“It was 10 years of stakeholders coming together to have the conversations,” said Alec Underwood, the Western field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “It took getting the different stakeholder groups on board to see where people could sacrifice and how we could reach a consensus that works for everyone.”

Tuesday’s letter from Missoula County’s board didn’t extend the same support for legislation proposed by Sen. Steve Daines.

Daines wants to release five wilderness study areas spanning 449,000 acres from review as potential wilderness, saying the U.S. Forest Service has deemed them unsuitable for designation.

While Daines has claimed the support of some user groups and a handful of rural counties, his legislation has drawn widespread criticism in recent weeks for its lack of public process. Missoula County commissioners shared that concern in Tuesday’s letter to Sens. Maria Cantwell and Lisa Murkwoski.

“As longtime champions of place-based collaboration, we have held the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project to a high standard and we intend to hold other public land legislation impacting our residents to a similarly high standard for collaboration and transparency,” they wrote.

“This includes legislation such as (Daines’) Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, which we are concerned was not developed through a transparent process that allowed for public input from interested stakeholders.”

A handful of residents in Ravalli, Beaverhead and Fergus counties have urged their commissioners to rescind their support for Daines’ bill, suggesting they violated open-meeting laws and public notice requirements when deciding to support the controversial measure.

Missoula County commissioners have largely avoided the debate, saying on Tuesday they didn’t know what process the counties used to solicit public input. Others, however, have been more direct in criticizing the process.

“The issue with Daines’ bill is that he wrote it with little to no public input, or having any public hearings or meetings, which is the collaborative process the people in Montana want,” said Underwood. “They want their voices to be heard. The people who use these areas are frustrated and feel like their voices haven’t been heard.”

Earlier this week, conservation groups from across the state launched a campaign to fight Daines’ bill, also suggesting it failed to solicit widespread public input. None of the counties that supported Daines’ measure, except Ravalli, held public meetings to discuss their support before sending letters to Daines.

Ravalli’s meeting included two members of the public.