Sen. Steve Daines told The Billings Gazette that he would, by year’s end, introduce legislation that would strip protection from 500,000 acres of Montana’s wildest and most pristine public lands. These half-million acres, representing the wild heart of Montana, is what he wants in exchange for preventing two proposed industrial gold mines near Yellowstone National Park, which could spell environmental and economic disaster for the Paradise Valley.
In other words, Daines is demanding Montana's wild legacy as ransom for doing what thousands of Montanans have asked him to do – to support a permanent mineral withdrawal at the doorstep of Yellowstone and protect the economy of the Yellowstone gateway communities.
This year Sen. Jon Tester introduced legislation that would implement this withdrawal. Called the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, this bill has the support of 400 business owners and thousands of Montanans. But Daines wants to stymie this legislation with his own politically motivated agenda – one that includes abolishing protection on 500,000 acres of public lands that represent the heart and soul of wild Montana. These are places protected as “wilderness study areas” (WSAs).
For 40 years, WSAs in the heart of the Gallatin Range, the Big Snowy Mountains, West Pioneers and many other places across Montana have protected community watersheds, allowed elk herds and trout populations to flourish, and safeguarded the revered places that are the bedrock of our outdoor recreation economy.
Like me, many Montanans have strong connections and emotional ties to places like the high ridges of the Sapphire Mountains in western Montana, the natural arches and bridges of the Terry Badlands near Miles City, and the dramatic basins of Ten Lakes in the northwest corner. Montana families have enjoyed these wildlands for generations, and they expect these places to remain unchanged for future generations.
Two summers ago, I took my oldest daughter on her first backpacking trip into the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, just south of our home in Bozeman. She carried my wife’s day pack, which was filled with snacks, a jacket, and her favorite stuffed animal. I gladly carried everything else and proudly watched her climb the trail ahead. We pitched our tent by a small nameless lake just above tree line and then stayed up late listening to nearby elk, drinking hot chocolate, and making up constellations.
WSAs, like the one my daughter and I visited, represent some of the best remaining wildlands in Montana. They are what set our state apart from all others in the Lower 48.
WSA designations weren’t intended to last forever. But they were intended to create a process whereby Montanans worked together to decide their future.
Montanans have a long track record of coming together to resolve land management issues through collaborative, place-based efforts that include all stakeholders— from timber to local business owners to conservationists. Indeed, our public lands, including Montana’s 44 wilderness study areas, are places that can bring us together.
Daines should know that better than anyone. He proposed to his wife Cindy at the top of Hyalite Peak high above Bozeman. That peak is inside the WSA I took my daughter into for her first backpacking trip. Now he is proposing to eliminate the protection that WSAs afford, protection that kept Hyalite Peak pristine for him and his wife, and for my daughter and me.
It’s time for Daines to stop playing politics with our public lands and find a way to work with Montanans instead of against them.
Montanans know the only way to reach consensus on how to manage public lands that belong to all Americans is to work together. That means hard conversations across fence lines and at kitchen tables. Nonetheless, Daines’ proposal seeks to introduce more conflict and animosity into situations that require understanding and collaboration.
Call Sen. Daines at 202-224-2651 and tell him not introduce divisive legislation eliminating Montana’s wilderness study areas and, instead, take his cue from the many Montanans working together to resolve their differences and chart a different path forward.