Missoula County to sign letter supporting Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater bill

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

Two hefty bills aimed at public lands in Montana are set for a committee hearing in Washington, D.C., next week, and while Missoula County isn’t likely to weigh in on one of them, it does have its sights set on the other.

On Thursday, commissioners agreed to write a letter of support for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act proposed by Sen. Jon Tester. It will not, however, join Granite County and others by signing a letter opposing legislation by Sen. Steve Daines, who’s pushing to release 450,000 protected acres from wilderness study designation.

Both bills are set for a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Granite County commissioners have already signed a letter to Daines asking for more public input and time.

“I’m inclined not to sign on to this particular letter, for no other reason than it doesn’t have a direct standing in Missoula County,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “However, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Act also has a hearing, and that’s something we’ve weighed in on previously and clearly it’s within Missoula County.”

In a media call with reporters in early December, Daines announced his intention to release five wilderness study areas from further review, saying the U.S. Forest Service has deemed them unsuitable for wilderness designation.

Citing support from several user groups and counties, including Ravalli and Fergus, Daines wants to release the West Pioneer and Sapphire wilderness study areas from review, along with the Big Snowy Mountains, the Middle Fork of the Judith River and the Blue Joint study areas.

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

“The Ravalli County Commission did not provide the public with sufficient opportunity to comment, as required by the Montana State Constitution and state open meeting laws,” several Ravalli County residents said in a letter.

“We are taking this action because we believe that residents of Ravalli County should have a reasonable say about how the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas are managed, and that all Montanans should have the opportunity to weigh in on how nearly a half-million acres of our wildest, most pristine public lands are managed.”

Missoula County commissioners on Thursday said they don’t believe Ravalli County commissioners violated any laws in supporting Daines’ legislation. But Zack Porter with the Montana Wilderness Association did suggest that Daines has not sought adequate public input on his bill.

“Our biggest concern with Sen. Daines’ legislation is that it has had zero public input, much less collaboration,” Porter said. “No public meetings have been held for the legislation.”

While Missoula County commissioners aren’t likely to sign any letter opposing Daines’ legislation, they may consider adding comments on the importance of open meetings and public process when they write in support of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act.

Porter suggested that was an acceptable alternative.

“If this county was to weigh in, there could be a way to say that it supports (the Blackfoot) legislation that it has previously endorsed and worked on, while bringing it to the committees’ attention that this other legislation being heard has not received the same public process,” Porter said.

“Many Missoula County residents make use of these wilderness study areas for hunting and fishing and our residents here expect to have a say in the process. That would be one way of addressing both bills.”

Missoula County commissioners do believe the two bills have come to life through a widely different process. The Blackfoot-Clearwater measure dates back more than a decade and has enjoyed wide collaboration between a number of groups, from wilderness advocates to the timber industry.

That, commissioners said, is something they can support.

“The reason we’ve been such strong supporters of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Act is because of the public process and collaboration it has gone through,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss.

In their letter dated Dec. 19, Granite County commissioners said they’ve been approached by many residents objecting to Daines’ proposed repeal of the Sapphire wilderness study area and, as a result, they unanimously declined to join Daines’ effort.

“We believe that a fair and balanced compromise can be reached if all voices are heard,” Granite County commissioners wrote. “This board voted unanimously to request that you obtain more public discuss on WSA’s in general, and specifically on the Sapphire WSA.”