Missoula Current: In Missoula, Tester Touts Bills Protecting Public Land, Hunter Ed

by Laura Lundquist

Montana’s senior senator was in Missoula Friday celebrating the speedy passage of one of his bills and the long-awaited progress of another.

On Friday afternoon, hikers, hunters and horsemen filled the basement of the Trail Head to celebrate the recent progress of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, S.2149, and to thank its sponsor, Sen. Jon Tester, for carrying the bill for so many years.

“We need to get energized. This is the time of our very last push,” Addrien Marx, Blackfoot Clearwater Steering committee member, told the crowd of about 50. “We need to spark Senator Tester by making our presence evident and reflect all those people who support this incredible act. But it’s up to us to bring it through. After 20 years, we’re so close. If we can’t get our act together, the landscape fails, the businesses fail, our children fail, the future fails – it’s on us.”

On Sept. 21, the Senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act as part of a package of 21 bills. It’s the first time the bill has made it out of committee since Tester first introduced it in March 2017.

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act would add about 78,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas and create two recreation management areas for snowmobiling and mountain biking. It was the product of a collaborative effort that brought together recreationalists, timber companies and wilderness advocates 20 years ago. They hammered out a compromise that has already produced timber and land restoration projects from north of Seeley Lake to north of Ovando.

“It’s been a long road. It feels like it’s been my whole career at that Trailhead that we’ve been talking about this thing. It’s not quite that. But to me, it’s about getting those permanent protections done,” said Todd Frank, Trail Head owner. “Compromises are incredibly hard, but the best ones are where everyone who walked away left a little bit on the table. They gave up a little bit to get a little bit more.”

Both Frank and Marx touted the 2023 Colorado College State of the Rockies poll, which found that 84% of Montanans support passage of Tester’s bill. That’s up from five years ago when a University of Montana poll, commissioned by the UM Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative, found 73% supported the bill.

Tester told the crowd they were the ones behind the bill’s progress; he was just the vessel to carry the bill.

“We live in a time when compromise oftentimes is a dirty word, when, in fact, compromise is the way you get things done. And there’s no better example of that than the BCSA,” Tester said. “What resulted was a piece of legislation that was good for everybody, where everyone could walk away from the table and say, ‘I didn’t get everything I want, but damn, that’s a pretty good piece of legislation.’ And the proof of that is that number: 84%. There ain’t nothing that gets 84% approval in this country.”

But the bill still has to get through the full Senate and the House. Like many public land bills, Tester’s bill will likely pass the Senate as part of a package attached to an omnibus budget bill to fund the government for the next year. The question then is what will happen in the House of Representatives, which has only recently returned to work after finally electing a speaker.

“The truth is these landscapes are disappearing and they’re disappearing really quickly. They’re not going to be around for our kids and grandkids to enjoy unless we do something about it today,” Tester said. “I would ask you to get proactive on this. We’ve got a moment in time between now and the end of the year when I think we can put enough pressure on people who serve in Congress to make them realize that Montanans want this. Because they do want this. It’s a winning issue and if they would jump on board and help push this across, they could take credit. Just like all of you can take credit. Just like the people in Montana could take credit. We have our work ahead of us. But we’re closer now than we’ve ever been before.”

Earlier in the day, at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Visitors Center, Tester was able to celebrate a complete victory with the passage of his Defending Hunters Education Act, S.2735, which President Joe Biden signed on Oct. 6. Tester had introduced the bill to the Senate exactly one month earlier.

Representatives of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Boone and Crockett Club talked up both the bill and the speed at which it moved through an otherwise bickering Congress.

“When we saw the Department (of Education) make this rule, we knew something was wrong. So we spoke out. We were pretty loud about it. And it happened quicker than we all thought it was going to,” said John Sullivan, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers president.

The issue popped up in late spring when members of Congress learned that the Department of Education had interpreted part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act – which prohibits schools from using federal education funds to purchase “dangerous weapons” for use in schools – to mean the department couldn’t allow funding to go to shooting sports programs, such as Hunter Education.

Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in 2022 in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y. The act improved background checks for those purchasing guns, closed legal loopholes that allowed violent offenders to get guns and expanded community violence intervention programs and mental health services, particularly in schools. The intent of prohibiting the purchase of dangerous weapons was to prohibit schools from using federal education funds to buy guns for teachers and provide them with training to use them, according to an Education Week article.

But hunters protested when the Education Department apparently interpreted the clause to apply to the purchase bows or rifles used in archery or hunter education classes.

Several members of Congress wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona protesting the decision. Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Thom Tillis wrote a July 10 letter noting that schools in their district told them the department “has begun withholding funds to programs which offer archery and hunter’s safety.”

When the Missoula Current asked the Department of Education on Friday about their interpretation, the public affairs office sent an email saying, “As we have said previously, the Department has not withheld any Federal funds from any State, school district, or any other grantee or subgrantee as a result of the previous statutory language in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.”

Tester wrote an Aug. 2 letter urging Cardona to reconsider, saying the misinterpretation “is limiting student learning opportunities critical to student safety.” On Friday, Tester said the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act probably could have been better written to prevent confusion.

“The agency could have interpreted it differently, but it wasn’t crystal clear. But the bottom line is I don’t think it should have taken an act of Congress to do this,” Tester told the Current. “We sent letters, made phone calls to say, ‘Hey you need to wake up and fly right.’ They said no, so we went to work, dropped in a bill by the first of September and it was passed by the first of October.”

Tester said the Defending Hunters Education Act was able to move so fast because the Senate approved it using unanimous consent, a process where a motion is passed in one action as long as there are no objections. None objected to a bill supporting education on bows and firearm safety with little to do with “purchasing dangerous weapons.”

“Gun bills don’t get done by UC,” Tester said.

Tony Schoonen, Boone and Crockett Club CEO, stressed the importance of hunter education and called the rapid passage of the bill nothing short of a miracle.

“Hunters safety, archery in the schools, these are programs that teach kids how to handle firearms safely, teach them how to hunt ethically, they teach them how to be stewards of the land. There’s no better place for this education to happen than the places where our communities come together and that’s our public schools,” Schoonen said. “Sen. Tester’s with his Defending Hunters Education Act, that has clarified this issue once and for all.”