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Daines would add wilderness removal to Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater bill

Sen. Jon Tester joins supporters near Missoula in pushing for the passage of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act in this 2018 file photo. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Sen. Jon Tester is once again pushing to pass his Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, but he’s getting little support from Montana’s other senator, Sen. Steve Daines.

On Tuesday, the Public Lands, Forests and Mining subcommittee of the Senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a brief hearing on 14 bills, including Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.

The act was first introduced as a stand-alone bill in 2017, and this will be the third Congress in which the bill has been introduced. The act would add about 78,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and create two recreation management areas for snowmobiling and mountain biking.

It is the last piece of a collaborative effort started in 2005 that brought together recreationalists, timber companies and wilderness advocates. They hammered out a compromise that has already resulted in timber and restoration projects from north of Seeley Lake to north of Ovando.

Through 2020, the associated Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative has created or maintained an average of 153 jobs, brought in $34 million in federal investments, and added an overall investment of $57 million in the local economy. The collaborative has logged more than 60 million board-feet, treated 57,000 acres for noxious weeds, restored 204 miles of stream and maintained more than 3,40 miles of trails.

But the last collaborative piece, the agreed-upon wilderness designation, has had to wait for Congress to act.

“Those who have worked on the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project for the last two decades, including myself, have poured our hearts into this bill because our hearts belong to the wildlands, wildlife, and waters this bill safeguards. The Blackfoot is under a tremendous amount of  pressure, from escalating use of the land and waters and from more frequent droughts and hot weather. We must pass this bill as soon as possible to help ensure our home in Montana remains the beloved place it is,” said Jack Rich, owner of Rich’s Montana Guest Ranch, in a release.

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

Loren Rose, formerly of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, saw the process through and said the project is something everyone in the area could agree on.

“It’s time to get it done,” Rose said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Christopher French, National Forest System deputy chief, said the Biden administration supports the collaboration that went into Tester’s bill, and his staff is working with Tester on a few small modifications to ensure the Forest Service can make it happen. 

But it was the wilderness designation that prompted Daines to insist that Tester’s bill shouldn’t move forward unless it was combined with legislation that Daines said he’d soon be introducing.

Daines said his bill would release certain wilderness study areas in Montana from being managed for wilderness to being managed as national forest.

“I support wilderness designations when they are fully supported by the local community, stakeholders and the best available science. I believe we can do better to put forward a more balanced product that Montanans can get behind,” Daines said. “I think there should be a balance between preserving areas deemed suitable for wilderness while also allowing Montanans to make appropriate use of lands deemed not suitable for wilderness.”

Daines read part of a letter from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which said the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act should include the release of certain wilderness study areas. The Citizens for Balanced Use, a motorized-use group, also opposes the wilderness designation, saying it damages public-land access, prevents logging and limits multiple-use recreation, even going so far as to call the bill “a land grab for mountain bikes.”

After Tester introduced his bill in the last Congress, Daines similarly acknowledged the collaborative effort but didn’t support the bill, raising questions of how wilderness designation might increase the risk of wildfire.

On Tuesday, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he wasn’t clear on whether Daines supported the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act or not. Daines said it was a good example of collaboration, but he wanted to see it as part of his bill to eliminate some wilderness study areas.

Daines has introduced similar legislation before. In 2018, he introduced a bill to eliminate five wilderness study areas, including the Blue Joint and Sapphire areas south of Missoula. He was joined by former Rep. Greg Gianforte, who introduced a second bill to eliminate another 24 study areas.

A subsequent University of Montana survey indicated more than 80% of Montanans opposed the legislation, partly because it bypassed the public process.

Learning of Daines’ testimony Tuesday, Tester emphasized the amount of work that the locals of the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys put into the agreements that produced the bill.

“The BCSA is the result of decades of collaborative work from folks on the ground, is supported by more than 70% of Montanans, and I’d welcome Senator Daines’ support. The BCSA stands on its own merits, and any changes or additions would need to be widely-supported and include a similarly collaborative process involving the folks in the BCSA collaborative who got us here,” Tester said.

Tester’s comment refers to a 2020 UM survey of 500 voters that shows support for the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act has hovered around 74% for the past three years. The same survey indicates 8% of Montanans support eliminating protections from wilderness study areas.

Montana’s sportsman’s groups, including the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, voiced their disapproval, saying the bill would benefit Montana’s fish, wildlife and outdoor recreation economy.

“It’s unfortunate that Senator Daines’ take-your-ball-and-go-home way of representing Montanans is preventing a bill that 80% of hunters and anglers support from moving forward,” said Scott Mylnechuk, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board member.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.