Swan Crest

The interior of the Bob Marshall Wilderness is seen from the Sunday Mountain ridgeline, one of several proposed wilderness additions advocated by members of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project.

Although a strong majority of Montana voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in November 2016, only 46 percent of Montanans surveyed this month approve of how his administration is handling land, water and wildlife issues.

That question was part of the eighth annual Western States Survey conducted by Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Among the eight states surveyed, only in Wyoming did a majority (59 percent) approve of President Trump’s policies on land, water and wildlife. The survey has a 4.9 percent margin of error.

Asked about specific actions or proposed by the Trump administration, among Montanans surveyed:

  • 74 percent said they support requiring oil and gas producers who operate on national public lands to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methan gas during the extraction process and reduce the need to burn off excess natural gas into the air. The administration has delayed implementation of that rule.
  • 54 percent oppose expanding how much public land is available to private companies that pay for the ability to drill for oil and gas on public lands.
  • 54 percent oppose expanding the public land available to private companies that pay for the ability to mine for uranium and other metals on public lands.

The Colorado Poll is just one effort to take the pulse of public opinion. As Montana leaders working in Helena and Washington, D.C., make decisions affecting our public lands they should bear in mind that Montanans place a heavy value on those lands for their recreation, their livelihoods and the intrinsic value of preserving plentiful wildlife, unspoiled land and clean water for future generations.

On Feb. 7, starting at 8 a.m. Montana time, our two U.S. senators will each present a public lands bill to a Senate subcommittee. Sen. Steve Daines has introduced the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act (S.2206) which would rescind the Wilderness Study Area designation on nearly half a million acres of Montana national forests. Republicans in the 2017 Montana Legislature called for WSA lands to be opened for development.

Sen. Jon Tester will seek support for his Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (S. 507) that would add 79,000 acres to existing Western Montana wilderness areas and also provide for logging, motorized recreation and other uses on other tracts of public land in the national forest. The Blackfoot Clearwater legislation is the result of a decade of dialogue that produced consensus between timber companies, snowmobilers, outfitters and environmentalists in the Blackfoot and Seeley-Swan regions.

The Gazette editorial board has not yet taken a position on either of those bills. However, we are solidly in favor of the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act that Tester introduced last year at the urging of a Park County business and community coalition that opposes mining on federal land at Yellowstone Park’s northern border. Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced a House version of the gateway protection act that would have the same effect as Tester’s bill. However, Daines has said he wants Yellowstone Gateway supporters to back his wilderness release bill in exchange for his support of the Paradise Valley mineral withdrawal.

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Daines also has told Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project leaders that their support for his wilderness release bill is the price he wants for his support of their legislation.

“Our proposal stands on its own merits,” the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project steering committee wrote to Daines last week.

We call on Daines to consider each piece of Montana public lands legislation on its own merits. Wheeling and dealing may be the Washington, D.C., way, but it’s not the Montana way. If the locally and broadly supported land proposal is a good idea on its own, it should not be bound to a separate bill.

Eighty-two percent of Montanans call themselves conservationists, a larger proportion than ever before in the Colorado Poll. All members of our congressional delegation should consider that viewpoint.

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