Montana land compromise a step in the right direction

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

It was a sight we didn’t expect to see anytime soon – all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation standing together behind a piece of land management legislation. But it happened, and Republican Rep. Steve Daines and Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh are to be congratulated for getting together on this issue.

The package of measures – eight in all – will extend wilderness designation and other protections to hundreds of thousands of acres along the Rocky Mountain Front and the North Fork of the Flathead River. The protections will come in exchange for streamlined permitting for grazing, irrigation and energy development on federal land.

The measures were rolled into the National Defense Authorization Act as “riders,” a practice roundly criticized by many in Congress. But Tester said it was the only way to get the Montana-specific measures through a largely dysfunctional Congress in the waning days of the lame duck session.

What was left out of the package was Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation act – a compromise hammered out by industry and recreation interests that would protect wilderness areas in exchange for mandated timber harvesting. That measure has been stalled for years now. But when Tester, Sen.-elect Daines and incoming Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke head to Washington next year, it’s a bill that should get renewed consideration.

The eight Montana riders in NDAA are among some 70 landmanagement riders tacked on to the bill – 1,600 pages in total, and there undoubtedly are some details within that many will find objectionable. But then that’s the nature of compromise, something we haven’t seen too much of in recent years.

What’s certain is that, if these measures survive legislative process, it will mark the first time in 30 years that any significant protections have been extended to any of the state’s millions of acres of roadless lands. And that in and of itself is significant.

There was a time in the not too distant past that senators and representatives from both sides of the political aisle found ways to work together on important issues and get things done. But both parties have been hijacked largely by extremists in recent years and that has stymied both chambers – a fact that is reflected in Congress’ historically low approval ratings.

Perhaps our own congressional delegation can do its small part to loosen the gridlock. This land-management compromise is a promising start.