Tester allies pump support for wilderness bill

by Helena Independent Record, Rob Chaney

A year after he introduced the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, Sen. Jon Tester rallied supporters to keep momentum going.

“Two-thirds of the Montanans surveyed said they supported this collaborative effort,” Tester said of a recent private survey on the bill. “We can’t get two-thirds of Montanans to agree if they want ‘Clamahto’ or ‘Clamayto’ in their red beer. It’s time for the rest of the delegation to get on board and push this across the finish line.”

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, the two-term Democrat said the legislation designating 79,000 acres of new wilderness around the Seeley-Swan and Blackfoot basins as well as recreation areas for mountain biking and snowmobiling reflected years of compromise.

“This is a bill where everybody gets a little bit and nobody gets everything they want,” Tester said. While he wanted support from Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, Tester said he wasn’t willing to swap support for his colleagues’ bills removing restrictions from wilderness study areas.

“This is a bill developed on the ground by folks on the ground,” Tester said of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act. “The bills on WSA (Wilderness Study Area) releases are more top-down in nature. They’re not broad-based at all.”

Daines has proposed stripping WSA-designation from about 500,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land, which would open it up to more motorized recreation access. Gianforte has introduced a companion to Daines’ bill in the House of Representatives, and added his own legislation stripping another 690,000 acres of Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land from WSA status.

The Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF) sponsored a poll in February that found 79 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans supported Tester’s bill. The Public Policy Polling survey contacted 512 Montana voters, with 39 percent Republicans, 27 percent Democrats and 33 percent independents. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

“One of the main things we found is Montanans support local collaborative efforts,” said MWF Director Dave Chadwick. “What they don’t support are top-down decisions that don’t involve local people. We also asked folks how they want the delegation to collect input on proposals like this. We found it’s important to hold in-person, town hall meetings to collect input.”

The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act had a hearing in February before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Daines is a member. That committee has not scheduled a vote to put it before the full Senate.

Missoula outfitter and guide Smoke Elser said expanding wilderness protection to the wildlife habitat on the edges of the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountain wilderness areas was important for future generations.

“When it’s passed, I’m going to drink a beer to you on top of Scapegoat Mountain,” Elser told Tester.

“I’ll be standing beside you when we do,” Tester replied.