Don Thomas, outdoor writer

DON THOMAS

Hunting, fishing, and wildlife are important to Montanans. These are the reasons many of us live here, and tourism and outdoor recreation are now the state's largest economic driver. Support for these values helped make Steve Bullock a blue governor in a red state, and politicians took notice. No matter what their ultimate intentions, Rep. Gianforte and Secretary of the Interior Zinke both took pains to portray themselves as allies of Montana sportsmen. So did Sen. Daines.

Their performance in Washington has proven otherwise. Now Daines has introduced the ominously titled Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act. Why “ominously?” Because Washington politicians have developed a double-speak that allows them to sugar-coat legislation in ways that imply the opposite of its intention. This bill won't protect anything.

This act calls for the elimination of Wilderness Study Area designation for nearly a half-million acres of public land in Montana. Daines does have a point. These lands have been in regulatory limbo since 1977, and it is time to clarify their status. But that should be done on an individual basis with an eye to compromise, not with the blow of a legislative hammer. What's good for one WSA is not necessarily good for others.

It is always instructive to note who has signed on in support of bills like this. What about the endorsement from Big Game Forever? Since numerous studies show that undisturbed security habitat is crucial for elk — our most popular big game animal — this group's name sounds suspiciously like another example of double-speak, and it is.

BGF is an offshoot of the Utah-based Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, founded by Don Peay, a privatization advocate who once said, "it's time to revisit the widely accepted principle ... that game is a public resource." These two groups cut a deal in Utah that allowed them to profit directly from the auction of big game tags there. They also secured large sums from the state to control wolves even though there were no wolves in Utah. The Salt Lake City Tribune has reported extensively on their inability to account for that money.

In 2011, SWF issued a press release claiming that other sporting groups had endorsed their position on de-listing the wolf, when they hadn't. Several of these organizations, including the NRA, responded, “Due to blatant misinformation contained in the press release circulated by these two groups (SFW and BGF) any claims they make in the future should be thoroughly investigated and independently confirmed."

Consider the case of Corey Rossi, one of the initial founders of the SFW Alaska chapter, who became the state's Wildlife Division director despite his total lack of qualification for the job. He was eventually dismissed after being charged with multiple game violations, but not before he had drafted a plan to allow private landowners to sell big game tags and ignore state game laws. That potential disaster reached the governor's desk before a leaked internal memo made it unravel. Why would Daines want to work with such a group while ignoring real Montana sportsmen?

The Daines bill predictably comes wrapped in promises of “access.” Montanans don't need more roads, but we do need legal access to public land we own. If Sen. Daines is concerned about access, he should address the millions of acres of public land throughout the West that are landlocked by private interests and illegal gates.

And Montanans should do whatever they can to let Daines know we want to keep Big Game Forever out of our state.

Don Thomas is a longtime outdoor writer living in Lewistown.

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