This West Is OUR West

House candidates hold meetings on wilderness study areas

August 17, 2018

HELENA (AP) — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte’s proposal to remove federal protections from lands designated as wilderness study areas across Montana is emerging as a central issue in his bid to keep the seat he won in a special election last year.

The Republican and his Democratic challenger, Kathleen Williams, held dueling public meetings Wednesday about two Gianforte bills that would strip more than 1,000 square miles (2,590 square kilometers) of federal lands of their designation. The 29 wilderness study areas in question have held that designation for more than 30 years, and with it, protections that restrict access, development and motorized use. The studies of whether those lands should be designated wilderness were completed years ago, but Congress never took action and state lawmakers and county commissioners sought Gianforte’s help in releasing those lands, the congressman said.

Gianforte, who replaced current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has received criticism for introducing the bills without public input.

Williams, a former state lawmaker trying to be the first Democrat in two decades to win Montana’s congressional seat, scheduled her public meeting in Missoula weeks ago so that people could be heard, she said.

“There have not been a lot of opportunities that I have heard of for people to come and share their perspective on wilderness study areas, so we wanted to provide that opportunity,” Williams told approximately 80 people.

Amy Robinson of the Montana Wilderness Association, one of the groups invited to Gianforte’s meeting, said more public comment is needed.

“Withdraw these bills and start over with a more bipartisan, collaborative approach that involves the public process with diverse interests,” she told the congressman.

Gianforte said there would be time for public input on what to do with the lands after the bills pass, and that he would consider amending the legislation to require federal agencies to consult with the public. At the Williams’ meeting, Mike Jeffords, the president of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, said opening the wilderness study areas to motorized use like all-terrain vehicle sand dirt bikes would be an economic boon.

“They would be a showcase for the rest of the nation,” he said. “I know I’m in enemy territory here, but those are the (risks) you take in life, and I’m willing to do it.”

Mike Jarnevic of Missoula, a military veteran and wilderness advocate, said wilderness lands are an extraordinary American legacy. “Once developed, they will never be in the same state and the nation will sadly be poorer for it,” he said.

Gianforte announced Monday that he also would host a discussion in Lewistown on Wednesday.

“The measures would restore public lands, which the U.S. Forest Service and (Bureau of Land Management) have determined are not suitable for wilderness, to active management and back to the agencies to determine what the local communities determine is right,” Gianforte said.’