Outdoor advocates urge Congress to create more wilderness in Montana

 

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Two decades after then-President Ronald Reagan vetoed a statewide Montana wilderness bill, retired U.S. Forest Service officials and others are urging the state’s congressional delegation to take a shot at getting another bill passed by Congress.

“This letter is but another indication that Montanans are trying to jumpstart legislative consideration of wilderness designation,” said former Montana Congressman Pat Williams.

Williams was one of 14 wilderness advocates who signed a letter sent Thursday to Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats, and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., asking them to make new wilderness designation a top priority.

Threats to the state’s wild lands, where elk and grizzly bear roam and trout-filled mountain streams flow unchecked, are cited in the request.

Dale Bosworth, the retired chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who lives in Missoula, was among those to sign the letter.

“We definitely need a wilderness bill for Montana, and it is past time for a statewide bill,” he said.

The congressional delegation offered no promises.

Any legislation affecting public lands needs to incorporate input from local communities and account for the impact on local economies and recreational access, Rehberg and Baucus said.

“I have heard from thousands of Montanans who have told me loud and clear that Montana doesn’t need Washington, D.C., imposing its will and telling us how to take care of our public lands,” Rehberg said.

Baucus called it a positive step that local communities are coming together and building support from the ground up, noting that any wilderness proposal must “have vast local support.”

Reagan vetoed the state’s last attempt at a statewide wilderness bill in 1988. That plan would have protected 2.5 million acres, including 1.3 million that were to be labeled wilderness.

“Had it not been for that veto, the Montana wilderness dilemma would have been solved 18 years ago,” Williams said.

Like Bosworth, Williams said he also backs a statewide approach to wilderness rather than trying to protect lands by piecemeal.

Wilderness, the most protective form of management, can only be authorized by Congress. The Wilderness Act of 1964 sets out criteria for the designation.

“Basically, those rules are to maintain the wilderness characteristic of solitude and the natural ecosystem features,” said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service Region 1 office in Missoula.

Of the 20 million acres of national forest in Montana, 3.4 million acres is designated wilderness.

Those proposing additions to the wilderness areas say Montana is falling behind other states, noting that the nation has seen 439 new wilderness areas created since 1983, when Congress approved the Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Bozeman.

The 2009 Public Land omnibus bill, which passed the Senate, contains wilderness in six Western states, including 500,000 acres in Idaho, but no acreage in Montana. The bill still must be approved by the house.

“We know we have areas as worthy of protection as our neighboring states do, and we believe there are wilderness proposals around the state that are ready to be introduced and passed by Congress this year,” the wilderness advocates’ letter states.

Areas in the state where negotiations over wilderness protections between various interests groups are farthest along are located in the Seeley-Swan Valley in western Montana, the Great Burn roadless area in the Bitterroot Mountains, the Beaver Head-Deer Lodge National Forest, the Yaak Valley in extreme northwestern Montana and the Rocky Mountain Front, Williams said.

“We’re already engaging with the communities along the Front in garnering support for our concept,” said Keith Gebo, past president of the Island Range Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Along the Front, a wilderness possibility that’s recently been discussed is expanding the 1-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness west of Great Falls to include adjacent land in the Lewis and Clark National Forest to the east, said wilderness proponent Randy Gray, the former mayor of Great Falls, who also signed the letter.

“I think there’s political will and reason to take a look at a wilderness bill in Montana,” he said.

Gray added that the chances of getting a wilderness bill passed today are better than when Reagan was president because a new willingness exists on behalf of competing interests to discuss compromises.

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