Commentary

Sen. Daines, stop holding the Blackfoot hostage

The Blackfoot River and Clearwater River confluence near Clearwater, Montana (Photo via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Sen. Steve Daines, during a recent Senate hearing, you had a unique opportunity to join with three out of four Montanans in support of the bipartisan Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA).

Instead, you took the bill hostage.

In exchange for supporting a bill that protects 80,000 acres at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River, you’re demanding protection be stripped from hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands across the state managed as wilderness study areas (WSAs). Apparently, you’re going to introduce another bill that would do just that, repeating a mistake you made in 2017, when you introduced a bill that would have stripped protection from five WSAs comprising 500,000 acres.

The bipartisan University of Montana Public Lands Survey from 2020 showed 8% of Montanans support stripping protections from wilderness study areas. That same poll showed that 75% of Montanans, including 75% who identified as Republicans, support the BCSA.

While we have yet to see your proposed bill, it appears it will be thrust on Montanans from the top down like your 2017 bill was, without any public input from the thousands of Montanans who know, depend on, and use the areas in question. We believe the fate of our WSAs should be decided after that kind of collaborative discussions at the local level, not by some one-size-fits-all bill drafted far from affected communities.

Completely unlike your 2017 bill and your anti-WSA bill to come, the BCSA is the culmination of a 15-year collaborative effort by Montanans representing a wide spectrum of interests – conservation, timber, ranching, outfitting, local business, recreation and more – the sort of collaborative effort missing from your WSA proposal. We spent years vetting the BCSA, making sure it works for the vast majority of Montanans, not just for 8%.

Adding to the support of the BCSA are the 170 groups, organizations and businesses across the state that have so far endorsed the bill.  They include Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Montana Outfitter and Guides Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which all joined MTB Missoula in sending letters to the Senate in support of the bill, as did Oboz Footwear, Eventgroove, Foundant Technologies, Beartooth Capital, and other Bozeman-based businesses.

Since you’re troubled by the wilderness components of the BCSA, then perhaps you could explain why, in 2019, you joined with your colleagues from Utah in support of 660,000 acres of new wilderness in their state, but won’t join with 75% of Montanans in support of protecting 80,000 acres of new wilderness in your state?

It’s not as though Montana has an abundance of wilderness protection, as you keep trying to claim. After all, only 3% of our state’s land mass is designated wilderness (Florida’s is 4%, by comparison).

But the BCSA is about more than new wilderness. It’s also about protecting the health of one of the most beloved rivers and fisheries in Montana – the Big Blackfoot. It’s about protecting the wildlife that inhabit, and depend on, the wildlands at stake in the BCSA. And it’s about the heart that Montanans have poured into this bill over the last two decades, heart that will be missing from the anti-public lands bill you’re going to introduce in the coming weeks.

So, in holding the BCSA hostage, you’re also holding the Blackfoot hostage and everything that makes it so special to Montanans.

While campaigning last year, you characterized yourself in one your mailers as a “protector of public lands.” You even went so far as to boast on Montana PBS, “I probably have the best record of protecting public lands than anybody who’s served from Montana in Washington, D.C. in a long, long time.”

The majority of Montana voters took you at your word, believing, or at least hoping, you’d live up to it.

You had the opportunity to do so by supporting the BCSA during the recent Senate hearing. You still have that opportunity – by withdrawing your demands for the BCSA and supporting it on its own merits. We sincerely hope you’ll choose to be the Senator you claim to be.

Terri Raugland is co-owner of Blackfoot River Outfitters. Lee Boman is a member of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship steering committee, former president of Wild Montana, and former president of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation. Jerry O’Connell is the founder and executive director of the Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper.

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