Wilderness Study Area bill sees overwhelming opposition

A bill encouraging the release of federal wilderness study areas in Montana was the last of three to be heard in a House committee, stifling the dozens of people who showed up to testify.

As the House Natural Resources committee spent an hour debating a bill giving authority over wildland firefighting to county commissioners, many public-land advocates became increasingly restless to testify in opposition to House Joint Resolution 9 sponsored by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman. They had already waited through 45 minutes of testimony on a recreational-prospecting bill.

HJ9 would encourage Congress to exclude seven wilderness study areas in Montana from consideration in the National Wilderness Preservation System. If that were to happen, those seven areas would become just national forest land open to natural resource extraction, logging and grazing and any additional roads that would accompany those activities.

White is also the Natural Resources Committee chair, the man who runs the hearings and who has the authority to schedule bills for each meeting. He chose to hear three bills on Monday but held his bill for the end when time would be tight. At the outset of the meeting, which started 15 minutes late, White announced his expectations for the meeting, saying there probably wouldn’t be enough time to allow everyone to testify but that they would be allowed to submit written testimony.

So as the hearing on the second bill wound down and the clock ticked toward 5 p.m., White prompted some frustrated murmurs from the crowd when he called a recess. When the hearing resumed he explained his motivation.

 “After 40 years, I would like to see them released back to multiple use,” White said.

After White gave his presentation, Vice-chair Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said proponents and opponents could have just 30 minutes each.

Seven rose in support of the bill, including representatives from the Montana Petroleum Association, the Montanan Farm Bureau Federation, and Citizens for Balanced Use. Many harkened back to the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, which said the wilderness study areas should reviewed within five years of the act for suitability as wilderness. They said the lack of any decision on the areas left the lands in limbo, creating “de facto wilderness.”

White is the founder of Citizens for Balanced Use, but it was attorney Jim Brown who spoke for the organization, saying the delay had gone on long enough.

“The amount litigation is increasing, which is becoming a burden on the court system. That’s not good public policy,” Brown said. “This (bill) is just asking Congress to do its job.”

However, opponents such as Kirk Thompson, a former employee of the Bitterroot National Forest, pointed out that the bill was not merely asking Congress to make decisions on the wilderness study areas – it was asking that the study areas be rejected as wilderness.

“I suggest you change HJ9 to request a new review of the study areas,” Thompson said.

Some asked that the Legislature allow collaborative efforts to play out, such as the one discussing the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in the Gallatin Range between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park. A working group of various users, including wildlife and wilderness advocates, mountain bikers, hikers and motorized-use advocates spent weeks in 2014 and 2015 trying to reach a somewhat equitable solution for the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn area.

“Collaboratives have worked in other situations. I think they will work in this,” said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Andrew Hunthausen.

Only 12 of the 49 opponents were given time to speak; the rest were allowed to state their names and leave written comments. But of those that spoke, a few, such as Bill Cunningham and John Mumma, were on the scene back in the mid-‘70s when a lot of political maneuvering was going on involving wilderness. They were able to challenge the validity of parts of HJ9.

Mumma countered the claim that nothing was done about the WSA's within the first five years. Mumma was the Regional Forester in Montana in 1987 and told the history of Congressional Senate Bill 2751, which received significant support in Congress but was vetoed by Pres. Ronald Reagan.

“There are a number of factual errors and some false statements in this bill,” Mumma said.