Three residents of Beaverhead County and the Montana Wilderness Association believe the Beaverhead County Commission likely violated state open meeting laws by stating a formal, forceful and unanimous position about the West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area in a September letter to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.
The letter urged the release of the West Pioneers study area, and other study areas, from consideration for wilderness designation.
Dated Sept. 8, 2017, and signed by the county’s three commissioners, the letter advised Daines, a Republican, that the officials felt there were no areas in Beaverhead County deserving of permanent protection as wilderness.
The “no” was in capital letters.
On Dec. 7, Daines issued a press release describing legislation he had introduced, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, that proposes release of 449,500 acres of wilderness study areas in Montana, including the 148,150-acre West Pioneers study area.
Daines’ press release included a link to the letter of support from the Beaverhead County Commission, which alerted the Montana Wilderness Association and others of that communication and similar communications from commissioners in Fergus, Ravalli and Judith Basin counties.
Commissioners in those counties also received letters suggesting there should have been opportunities for public comment — opportunities that were either completely lacking or described as lackluster.
The Montana Wilderness Association worked with three residents of Beaverhead County who are association members to draft a letter questioning whether and when the commission there had held public discussion before writing the letter.
Dated Jan. 29, the letter notes that efforts to find evidence that the commission had acted with public input and public notice about an issue of great public significance had proved fruitless.
“Despite this intense public interest in the Beaverhead County’s wilderness study areas, we can find no record of any public debate or commission action at a noticed meeting prior to the commission taking a position on wilderness study area legislation,” stated the letter, which was signed by Jack Kirkley, Alan Weltzien and Pete Bengeyfield.
Kirkley said the letter to the Beaverhead County Commission was driven by the belief “that the citizens of Beaverhead County should have been given a fair and open opportunity to express our opinions about how the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area is managed.”
Tom Rice, chairman of the Beaverhead County Commission, said he did not feel the county had violated open meeting laws by sending the letter without a formal public process.
“That I tend to disagree with,” he said. “That’s a pretty bold statement.”
He said the commission routinely sends letters of support about various issues and clarified that the board does not support every aspect of Daines’ proposed legislation. He acknowledged, however, that the commission’s letter made clear that the county opposes permanent wilderness protection for the West Pioneers and other wilderness study areas cited in the letter.
He said the commission likely will hold a public hearing in the weeks ahead, with the date potentially pegged to what sort of progress Daines’ bill makes in Congress, about the wilderness study area debate.
Rice said the commission hasn’t decided whether to rescind the Sept. 8 letter to Daines.
The Montana Wilderness Association describes the West Pioneers, sited along the Idaho border west of Dillon, as “the largest remaining roadless area in Southwest Montana” and says the rolling and forested range is home to a large population of elk.
In turn, the Beaverhead County Commissioners’ letter says opening up wilderness study areas to responsible multiple use, including motorized recreation, grazing, timber, minerals and more could benefit both the nation and local economies.
The county’s letter noted that commissioners “believe that the over 10 million acres of wilderness and national parks within one day’s drive of Dillon are ample in meeting ecological, environmental, and human needs for wilderness in this region.”
Rice said Thursday that Beaverhead County must be able to rely on a diversified economy that includes commercial use of natural resources to pay for schools and roads and other key infrastructure and obligations.
Meanwhile, a Dec. 19 letter to Daines from Granite County’s commissioners reported that the board had unanimously declined to write a letter of support for his legislation, noting commissioners had heard from numerous people opposed to release of the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area.
“We feel that the characteristics of the Sapphire WSA are significantly different than any other WSA due to the nearly two dozen lakes that feed blue-ribbon trout streams, as well as secure habitat for big game and other wildlife,” the commission wrote.
The Granite County letter added, “While we agree that it is time to decide on how these areas should be managed in the long term, we believe that the public is interested in a fair, transparent, inclusive and fact-based solution that recognizes the history of collaborative dialogue.”