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Chris Saeger


The long-running push by politicians in Washington D.C. to privatize public lands and scale back national monuments is now coming to head, as a sympathetic White House starts to endorse and implement anti-public lands efforts that could lead to the irresponsible development and eventual elimination of the Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana.

As the White House and Department of the Interior continue to shrink, modify or undermine protections for public lands and national monuments, Rep. Greg Gianforte could be a deciding vote in whether Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks stays protected or is opened up to industry.

President Donald Trump has already eliminated protections for millions of acres of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. Now Congress is considering legislation to codify that decision (H.R. 4532) and to broaden the powers of the executive branch of government to lift protections for even more acres of public land with even less accountability (H.R. 3990).

Gianforte sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, and accordingly has the opportunity to stop legislation that threatens Montana’s public lands and national monuments (including Upper Missouri River Breaks) from making its way onto the House floor -- if he indeed chooses to do so. His constituents certainly want him to: A recent poll found that Rep. Gianforte’s constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to President Trump’s recent anti-public lands actions, by a 22 point margin, including 46 percent who “strongly oppose” this legislation.

Gianforte’s track record on public lands and national monuments — including a committee vote in favor of H.R. 3990, which would weaken the executive branch’s ability to designate national monuments — suggests that he could ultimately vote in favor of scaling back protections for public lands across the American West, including in Montana.

Gianforte previously said that use of the Antiquities Act has resulted in “large land grabs” that do not “include local input.” In particular, he criticized the designation of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument because “there wasn’t a lot of consultation with local landowners.” Gianforte supports creating a process that would give states more influence in monument designations.

Montanans who Gianforte represents, want and expect public lands to maintain public access, provide world-class recreation and tourism opportunities that support businesses and jobs, support healthy, thriving communities, and be protected for the next generation – a mix only possible when our government and industry strikes the right balance between energy development and conservation.

Montana’s public lands are supposed to be managed for multiple uses, including outdoor recreation, which generates $7.1 billion in consumer spending every year and supports 71,000 jobs. Yet the special interests that want to develop public lands in a lopsided way, such as the oil and gas industry, have the system rigged in its favor. Under the Trump Administration, their priorities are being prioritized above every other use of our public lands, including outdoor recreation. This administration’s efforts to eliminate common sense protections for hiking trails, big game herds, and drinking water – in the misguided pursuit of “energy dominance” – is a grave threat to Montana’s public lands, economy, and our natural heritage.

Any additional votes by Gianforte for the anti-public lands bills currently under consideration in Congress would be a vote to upend that balance. The congressman should listen to his constituents and pledge to protect Montana’s — and the West’s — beautiful public lands from further development and mining, so that his children and grandchildren can hunt, fish, and hike on the same lands that he has been able to.

Chris Saeger is the executive director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based watchdog group on public lands issues.