Commentary

Getting out of the political rut to solve the wilderness problem

July 17, 2022 4:13 am

The Bitterroot Mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana. (Photo by Getty Images.)

Author’s Note: I’ve been working in various ways to protect Montana’s last roadless land for more than 50 years and have written extensively about all aspects of the wilderness issue. In this three-part commentary (yes, it’s only my opinion), I propose a framework for our best chance to finally resolve this seemingly endless controversy. This first commentary focuses on the political challenge we face with Part Two (Restoring Natural Alliances) and Part Three (The Grand Solution) to follow.

Anything with the word “wilderness” in it is guaranteed controversial, but nonetheless, for decades, Montana’s congressional leaders have been demanding a non-controversial solution to the wilderness problem, one that won’t lose them any votes or contributions. Denied such a mythical solution, they refuse to deal with the wilderness issue.

That’s the political rut we’ve been in for so long that we can’t remember when it started. Therefore, it’s way past the time for those we elected to forget this head-in-the-sand approach and finally do the right thing for Montanans.

Look at it this way: If your team will only shoot lay-ups and the defense on the other team knows it, you’ll never win a game, whereas taking a few three-pointers might result in a victory. For fear of losing or even having a close game, Montana’s political leaders have decided not to play. 

Even though residents of the other 49 states own a 99 percent share of Montana’s public lands, any solution must start right here in Montana. Congress will not vote on any bill that isn’t offered to them with the support of the state’s senators and representatives. You’d think that since the majority of Americans support the concept of protecting the last few blank spots on the map and that they actually own that land, the majority of Congress could overrule a state’s politicians. 

I believe it has only happened once in my lifetime. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act, the largest expansion of protections to public land ever, 157 million acres of national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and other protected areas, over the vigorous opposition of Alaska’s senators and representatives.  So theoretically, it could happen again in Montana, but realistically, it will not happen. 

There is always the American Antiquities Act, signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The Antiquities Act has been used by several presidents, recently by Bill Clinton in his attempt to leave a strong conservation legacy by creating a dozen national monuments, including the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument in Montana. Again, theoretically, Joe Biden could use the Antiquities Act to preserve wild Montana, but that’s not going to happen.

When you drill down into at the real numbers, you’re likely to ask, “Why is it such a big political problem?” 

Montana has about 6.3 million acres of roadless public land, about 7 percent of the state or 21 percent of our public land, not including lands already protected as wilderness and national parks. Included in that 6.3 million acres are seven wilderness study areas (WSAs), totaling 686,500 acres, mandated by Congress in 1978, legislation shepherded by former Montana Sen. Lee Metcalf and administratively managed by the U.S. Forest Service as wilderness ever since.

Also included are 37 small wilderness study areas (totaling about 435,000 acres) managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Deducting the WSAs, that leaves about 5.1 million acres of unprotected roadless lands (about 5.8 percent of Montana or 17 percent of public land) in limbo.

Politicians always want a balanced approach. Well, I hope they look at these numbers and ask: Does protecting all of our remaining wild land seem like an unbalanced approach? 

But in reality, numbers don’t matter. Instead, it comes down to political ideologies. Conservative politicians seem to automatically detest the concept of wilderness as a liberal idea that goes against their core values. I’ve been scratching my head over this reasoning for many years and still can’t figure out how protecting roadless lands goes against conservative values. 

Through the decades, survey after survey after survey tells us the same thing. The majority of Montana voters support the protection of our roadless lands as part of a goal of having a clean, healthful, beautiful living environment as guaranteed in Montana’s constitution. That’s a primary reason people move here or stay here. 

It’s hardly breaking news that lots of people are moving to Montana, and again, recent surveys of those new residents show the same motivation. People move here, start businesses, create jobs, because they and their employees want a clean, healthy, scenic lifestyle, and wilderness fits perfectly with that goal. 

More surveys, studies and polls have shown that wilderness creates more jobs and business opportunities than it endangers. Wilderness designation certainly does not take away anybody’s freedom or liberties, but instead, arguably, protects them. Consequently, wilderness should not be so controversial. So why is it?

That’s all I could think about as I recently read comments by Sen. Steve Daines and viewed photos of him backpacking and hiking with his wife and children. He is proud of our outdoor heritage, enjoys hiking and hunting in our last wild places. Like so many of us, he tries to pass on his love of the outdoors to his children.  Yet, he opposes efforts to protect that outdoor heritage by not only refusing to help resolve the wilderness issue, but also trying to open congressionally mandated wilderness study areas to development. Go figure.

I don’t mean to single out Daines because he is hardly alone. This glaring dichotomy is everywhere on our conservative landscape. In order to have any chance of any solution, anytime in this century, our political leaders need to adjust their attitude.

Whatever is rare is valuable. Wilderness is rare, if not priceless. Montana is so fortunate to still have wild land to protect whereas most states have long ago developed it all. Now, we need to do the right thing and formally protect it.

In the next commentary, I’ll do my best to explain how we can help them change.

 

 

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