MISSOULA - After quick passage through the U.S. Senate, an omnibus wilderness bill faces a slower slog through the House of Representatives.
The bill would add to wilderness acreage in nine states and possibly underwrite an Ice Age Floods interpretive center in Missoula. The Senate passed its portion of the measure Thursday on a vote of 73-21. Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester voted in favor. pBut it required a rare Sunday session by the Senate's Democratic leadership to free the bill from a threatened Republican filibuster. And it strung together 164 bits of legislation, some of which had been awaiting passage for years, to ensure widespread support.
One of those bits was the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail. The idea to support museums and exhibits along a route from former Glacial Lake Missoula to the Pacific Ocean had been before Congress twice, according to Norman Smyers, president of the Missoula chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute.
"Any time you get a major piece of legislation, it takes seven or eight years for a single piece of legislation to work its way through the system," Smyers said. "We've been at it for about five years. So if we get resolution this spring, we're about two years ahead of the curve."
Smyers said previous attempts to get the trails project passed involved parallel bills in both chambers, which later died when differences in the separate versions couldn't be reconciled. This time, the legislation is starting in the Senate and moving directly to the House, which could simplify the process.
But Congress also appears focused on crafting economic stimulus packages for the incoming Obama administration. While the wilderness proposals include a lot of nationwide support, they don't offer many new jobs.
Rep. Denny Rehberg couldn't be reached for comment Friday on the wilderness bill's prospects in the House. But Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said its arrival was anticipated.
"The House is expected to take it up in the next several weeks," Link said. "But the House schedule is always subject to unpredictable changes."
In the meantime, Smyers and fellow Ice Age Floods trail supporters are amusing themselves with repeated viewings of the movie "Ice Age: The Meltdown."
"I was looking at it, and it occurred to me you know what they're really talking about here is Glacial Lake Missoula," Smyers said. "And if you look at that movie, the vegetation they show is basically this part of the world."
Smyers did some background checks on the movie's writers and learned that two of them got their starts as comedians in Spokane, which is part of the Ice Age Floods trail. However, he said he's found no proof that Glacial Lake Missoula was catastrophically emptied by a Pleistocene squirrel named Scrat.
"They took a lot of poetic license there," Smyers said.