Public lands are Montana’s latest wedge issue. What’s behind the rhetoric, and how is it shaping the debate?

By Alex Sakariassen - September 6, 2018 - Originally published in the Missoula Independent 

Last spring, a billboard appeared in the Bitterroot Valley. It featured six pissed-off-looking locals and a demand aimed at Ravalli County’s five-member commission: “Respect public lands.” The same photo and message were duplicated on yard signs distributed throughout the county by a group of citizens calling themselves Our Land, Our Legacy. Four months later, the commission asked Attorney General Tim Fox to investigate the campaign’s funding sources.

This contention was the direct result of a bill introduced in Congress on Dec. 7, 2017, by Sen. Steve Daines. The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act called for the release of nearly 500,000 acres of federally protected lands in Montana. Daines rationalized the release of these lands, comprising five of the seven Forest Service-managed Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in Montana, by claiming that 40 years of “D.C. paralysis” had frozen access for motorized and mechanized users including snowmobilers and mountain bikers.

“It’s time,” Daines said, “to keep public lands in public hands.”

Ravalli County’s support for the bill, which calls for the release of two WSAs adjacent to the Bitterroot, was immediate. In fact, a letter of support signed by four of the commissioners (and dated Sept. 15, 2017), accompanied Daines’ rollout, triggering complaints that the commission had neglected to engage public input prior to drafting its position. Hence the billboards, the yard signs and, when the commission finally convened a public hearing on the issue in February, a turnout so large it prompted a last-minute venue change to the Ravalli County Fairgrounds.

Daines’ proposal has underscored a continuing divide on public lands management in the West. Historically the line has been drawn between those who want greater resource extraction and development on public lands and those who want to preserve their wildness. The line has grown blurier with time, as large-scale wildfires have heightened calls for forest thinning and timber harvest, and booming interest in outdoor recreation — currently a $7-billion-a-year industry in Montana — has intensified.

The WSA issue, focused on lands set aside by Congress in 1977 for studies of their wilderness potential while still managed as de facto designated wilderness, has bled into the 2018 midterm election campaigns thanks to twin proposals by Rep. Greg Gianforte. In March, Gianforte introduced one bill mirroring Daines’ and another seeking the release of 24 additional WSAs overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Democrats and conservationists have routinely criticized Gianforte for pitching these blanket policies without first holding a single public debate back home. A survey of 500 registered Montana voters commissioned by the University of Montana in May found that 57 percent of poll respondents supported maintaining WSAs as-is (among respondents who identified as Republicans, support was 40 percent).

The prospect of widespread WSA releases in Montana is the latest issue driving the public lands debate in the state. Forest plan revisions, land transfer agendas, checkerboard ownership — all these and more have spurred numerous public rallies, campaign ads and advocacy messaging in recent years. In August, Trout Unlimited announced a national September-long celebration of public lands to educate people on key issues and urge them to contact their lawmakers and advocate protection of “our outdoor traditions.” Even outdoor retailers are pushing back against controversial management decisions with bold language and multi-pronged campaigns. REI led a 2015 effort to lobby Congress and flex the muscle of the Outdoor Industry Association in the name of more robust funding for public lands. And last year, Patagonia famously accused President Trump of stealing public land by radically reducing two national monuments in Utah. Patagonia continues to maintain a website advocating the protection of public lands.

Recognizing growing sentiment on the issue, candidates and groups have used public lands as an avenue of attack, transforming a complex issue into an oversimplified partisan wedge. Montana’s 2016 gubernatorial race was largely dominated by Gianforte’s past dispute with the state over stream access through his Bozeman property, an albatross that followed the Republican into his 2017 congressional campaign and appeared to lose relevance only after Gianforte assaulted a reporter on Election Day eve.

As indicated in a recent survey by the Center for Western Priorities, public lands have become a primary motivator among Western state voters, Republicans and Democrats alike. Yet politicization has made the debate seem deceptively black-and-white. It’s not. With the midterm election less than eight weeks away, it’s a good time to clear the fog of public lands rhetoric.

Daines’ phrase “keep public lands in public hands” landed with a smack of irony last year. Though he meant it to reflect lack of access to WSAs for certain user groups, the exact phrase had first been coined by staunch opponents of his WSA release bill in a much different fight three years earlier.

Lands transfer was one of the defining controversies of the 2015 Montana Legislature. Originating in Utah, the lands transfer movement leaned on the Enabling Acts that created each state to argue that federal lands in the West should be transferred to state ownership. In Montana, its champions were Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, and Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman. The two requested a string of bills ahead of the session that would have set the stage for such a transfer, including an interim study of its feasibility. Six months earlier, in summer 2014, the Montana Republican Party had officially adopted lands transfer as a plank in the state party platform.

Though some in the Republican caucuses saw the proposal as ridiculous on its face, conservationists did not take the threat idly. In February, the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and several other groups hosted a rally in the Capitol rotunda in Helena. Hundreds showed up to oppose what they saw as an assault on federally managed lands in Montana. Gov. Steve Bullock delivered an impassioned speech. The rallying cry? “Keep public lands in public hands.”

Fielder attempted to assuage fears that a transfer to state ownership would result in widespread sell-offs of public land to the private sector (and an open invitation to rampant resource development), introducing a bill to bar any such sales. But the public’s hackles had been raised, and when a similar slate of bill draft requests cropped up in 2017, more than 1,000 people gathered in the capitol for a second opposition rally.

“Those rallies really helped demonstrate how passionately Montanans support public lands,” says Kayje Booker, state policy director for MWA. “And I think it was a wake-up call to elected leaders of all kinds in Montana that that was an issue that was going to motivate people and that people cared deeply about, and that it wasn’t a good idea for anybody to be pushing transfer and privatization.”

In early 2016, Fielder was named CEO of the Utah-based American Lands Council — the primary driver of the lands transfer movement in the West — but the agenda took a backseat in 2017 to Montana’s budget woes. As real as the threat had seemed just a few years before, public expressions of lands transfer sentiment in Montana have subsided. Sen. Jon Tester notes a shift in the rhetoric, with proponents of defederalizing public lands now focusing on more limited proposals: shared management or control of federal lands with state and local governments. The concept is often pitched as a way to cut through D.C. bureaucracy or ensure that local voices are heard. Tester sees it as a “backdoor attempt” by lands transfer proponents.

“Everybody agrees local government is the closest government to the people, and it’s the best,” Tester tells the Indy. “But the truth is, they don’t have the money, so they’d have to sell it, and when they’re sold, the fishing hole’s gone, the hunting spot’s gone, the good place to hike is gone.”

Opposition to lands transfer galvanized the conservation movement and drew attention to the debate about public land management. But Booker says more is required of elected officials than simply supporting the continued public-ness of public lands. That’s the “lowest bar” you could set for supporting public lands, she says, and blurs what it means to champion public lands.

“I think the WSA bill is helping sharpen that conversation to understand what we mean when we say someone supports public lands, and that is more than just saying that they want them to exist,” Booker says.

Sometimes, when Brad Tschida ventures up Blue Mountain, hunting for deer or grouse, a motorcyclist will fly past him. Those moments aggravate him, and when he’s able to stop them on the trail, he’ll explain that motorized use in the area is not allowed. Sometimes, he says, they’ll spin the bike around and take off, spitting up gravel in their wake. It’s not that he’s against motorcycles on public lands, just that he feels they should stick to areas designated for their use.

“I want them to be able to ride,” Tschida says, “because if they don’t, they’ll continue to trespass or egress onto things they shouldn’t be on.”

Tschida is running for his third term as the Republican lawmaker in Missoula’s House District 97. He counts Rep. Kerry White as a “good buddy” and says Republicans have been miscast as wanting to sell off public lands.

He is, though, a proponent of more state involvement in the management of federal lands. “I proposed that in my first term,” Tschida says.

Specifically, Tschida says he supports state co-management of certain lands with federal agencies for a time, to determine whether adequate revenue can be generated from timber harvests, mineral exploration and other uses to allow the state to manage them long-term.

Though he’s had one knee replacement and is scheduled for a second in November, Tschida still gets outdoors as far and as often as he can. But his mobility is limited, as is the mobility of many people seeking to enjoy Montana’s public lands. He sees restrictions on motorized and mechanized use — not just in WSAs but in portions of national forests where the Forest Service has closed roads — as an obstacle for people who can’t backpack long distances or don’t have the knowledge and resources to go in on a horse.

“There are places I’d like to take my grandkids into that I can’t, because they’re not able to walk the distance that they would need to walk, and there’s gates up that prevent us from getting as close [to backcountry areas] as we used to get,” Tschida says. “It’s unfortunate. We need to take a look at the fact that 22,000 miles of roads on federal lands — not wilderness areas, federal lands — have been closed off.”

The argument that federal lands have been “closed off,” or that the public has been “locked out,” is key among WSA release proponents. The number Tschida cites — 22,000 miles of roads — was also referenced in a December 2017 letter to the Billings Gazette by Terry Anderson, a senior fellow and former president of the Property and Environment Research Center. The 38-year-old Bozeman-based center is dedicated to what it calls “free market environmentalism,” and Anderson’s letter advocated more local collaboration regarding trail access to Forest Service lands. Anderson is also on the board of the Montana Outdoors Coalition, which has promoted a report from a D.C.-based dark money group denouncing the Montana Wilderness Association and others as “Green Decoys,” i.e., front groups for “radical” environmentalist agendas. That report triggered the Ravalli County Commission’s August letter to Attorney General Fox seeking an investigation of several Montana-based conservation nonprofits.

The closure of Forest Service roads has become a rallying cry among people seeking greater public lands access for motorized users. Republican state lawmakers passed a joint resolution in 2015 to investigate the closure and retirement of federal forest roads, and in June, Gianforte cited the subsequent findings of the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council — that nearly 22,000 miles of federal forest roads have been closed since the 1990s — in chairing a meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee.

“The Forest Service is under pressure to close and decommission thousands of miles of forest service managed trails and roads,” Gianforte told the subcommittee. “Burdensome regulations, inconsistent policies, lack of proper maintenance and the constant threat of litigation all contribute to these road closures.”

Gianforte went on to characterize the closures as a hindrance not only to access for hunters, campers and hikers, but to efforts to combat catastrophic wildfires. Kerry White was among those Gianforte invited to testify.

Some conservationists don’t buy the argument that efforts to reverse road closures are about restoring recreational access. In response to the June hearing, Keith Hammer, chair of the Kalispell-based nonprofit Swan View Coalition, told Montana Public Radio that Gianforte’s real motive isn’t expanding recreational access, but rather expanding access to logging trucks into “every corner” of national forests.

The phrase “locked up” has become widely used in the public lands debate, but its meaning varies depending on whom you’re talking to. It served as the title of a 2017 report by the nonprofit Montana Wildlife Federation that, in contrast to Gianforte’s usage, focused on illegal road closures by private entities and the resultant loss of access to nearly 2 million acres of state and federal land in Montana.

Based on her own recreational experience, Hannah Nikonow doesn’t buy the “locked out” message as it’s been presented by Gianforte and others. She’s a Missoula-based board member of the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and regularly visits some of the WSAs that Daines and Gianforte want to release in the name of public access.

“They aren’t just hard-to-get-to places of rock and ice,” Nikonow says. “I went morel picking in the Sapphire WSA with a 2-year-old this year and we walked up into the WSA from a road. They’re not locked-up places like some representatives have characterized them.”

Three years ago, the Bitterroot National Forest closed more than 100 miles of trail to motorized and mountain bike use on the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs, on the southwest and northeast fringes of the Bitterroot Valley, respectively. The decision generated consternation among those users, ultimately leading to a legal challenge by cyclists this summer.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula upheld the Bitterroot forest’s travel plan decision in July with one caveat: that a public hearing on continued mountain bike access in the areas be held. Forest officials opted to open portions of the two areas to cycling during the hearing process, a move that prompted Christensen to issue a follow-up rule on Aug. 15 once again closing both WSAs to mechanized use.

That back-and-forth is an example of what Daines means when he talks about the public being “locked out” of the WSAs he would release. In the aftermath of Christensen’s August decision, Daines says anyone would consider such a judicial ruling “extreme.”

“What we need to do is we need to turn this back to the ongoing forest management planning process,” he says, in defense of his WSA bill. “The public would be able to have a say in the process at that point. The irony is this bill would improve the public process.”

Even as Christensen ruled this summer, volunteers with the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists were busy clearing trails in the Blue Joint.

The uncertainty of continued access in these two WSAs is consistent with what Ben Horan, of the nonprofit cycling group Mountain Bike Missoula, says is commonplace for backcountry cyclists. Despite rapid growth in the mountain biking community and breakthroughs in trail building, Horan believes Montana has been slow to embrace mountain biking and its advocates.

“Mountain bikers every year see closures to existing mountain bike access without new opportunities elsewhere,” he says. “We see net loss to trail access every single year, and that’s a problem.”

Horan draws a sharp distinction, however, between the “locked out” message spread by some politicians and the restrictions he sees to public lands access. Illegal road and trail closures by private individuals and local governments, lack of respect by private landowners for public easements, checkerboarded land ownership — these, he says, have a tangible impact on Montanans’ ability to recreate outdoors. The solution he advocates lies not in congressional hearings or blanket designations, but in collaborative, grassroots agreements among the people living, working and playing on the landscape.

By way of example, Horan points to Sen. Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, a bill introduced last year that would designate new wilderness additions to the Bob Marshall Complex and guarantee backcountry access for snowmobilers in the Otatsy Lake area northwest of Lincoln. Tester’s legislation was the result of roughly a decade of work by the Montana Wilderness Association, Pyramid Lumber, the off-highway vehicle group Blue Ribbon Coalition and a host of area businesses, ranchers and outfitters to reach a compromise on land use in the Blackfoot Valley. Horan and Mountain Bike Missoula spent years pushing for the inclusion of a special-use area for mountain bikers in Spread Creek, just upstream from the popular Monture Creek trailhead. That persistence paid off.

“We really want to have a seat at the table in these conversations,” Horan says. “We feel pretty strongly that the BCSA provides a strong model for the best way forward in developing durable, lasting, effective land-use protections.”

Horan adds that, in the face of climate change and policies that threaten to strip existing public lands protections, it’s never been more important to protect large landscapes in Montana. That means maintaining healthy ecosystems, he says, and providing linkage corridors for wildlife. Yet the Spread Creek portion of Tester’s bill has put local mountain bikers at loggerheads with conservationists who espouse the very same values. Wildlife advocates have criticized the BCSA for placing a mountain bike area within core grizzly bear habitat. Wilderness proponents agree, saying the bill places mechanized use too close to the Bob Marshall boundary.

Jake Kreilick serves as the restoration coordination for the Missoula-based forest advocacy nonprofit WildWest Institute. He’s also a member of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, a coalition of conservationists that coalesced several years ago around upcoming forest plan revisions for Missoula’s three nearby national forests. The group fought heavily against commercial logging in the main stem of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, and continues to defend roadless areas and core habitat for threatened species. Kreilick says the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act is an example of “cutting the baby in half and then cutting it again,” and views the bill’s provisions as an opening of key expanses of primitive wildland to accommodate new “social and recreational demands.”

“People are afraid to ask for what the land really needs, and that’s largely a political calculus,” Kreilick says. “It’s not a social calculus, it’s not an economic calculus, it’s certainly not a scientific calculus.”

Tester’s bill is indicative, Kreilick says, of how the pressures exerted on public lands have evolved. In the 1990s, he says, the debate was largely about logging and mineral extraction. But with more people moving to Montana — and, subsequently, more people playing outdoors — it’s as though the timber wars have been replaced with the “recreation wars.”

Though the push to accommodate more recreational users has led to some disagreement within the conservation world, Kreilick is optimistic that people introduced to the public lands debate via recreational interests will be receptive to his task force’s science-centric mission. The real challenge, for the task force at least, is in spreading the word about that mission without straying too far into the latest political controversy.

“Our job is going to be to talk about it all, not just to talk about the WSAs,” Kreilick says. “It’s also going to be to really stay focused on protecting the best and that’s going to mean continually hammering on the roadless areas, continually hammering on the important corridors.”

A winning campaign issue. That’s how the Center for Western Priorities characterized the political power of public lands this July. To back its assertion, the Colorado nonprofit released the results of a poll of Western-state voters revealing that 54 percent of Montanans will only vote for a candidate who shares their public lands values, and that 75 percent are motivated to vote when they feel those values are threatened.

The poll also supports Kreilick’s belief that “in this climate of Trump,” conservationists will find friendlier audiences, as well as Nikonow’s insistence that an educated, informed electorate is key to ensuring strong protections for places treasured by hunters, anglers and scores of other public land users. It’s imperative that the public looks past the rhetoric, Nikonow says, to carefully examine “what is being proposed and, with these attacks, what are they actually targeting, and not just voting with party lines.”

As further evidence of the interest in public lands, on Aug. 15, about 60 people packed into a conference room in the University of Montana’s University Center to talk about WSAs. The roundtable, hosted by Democratic U.S. House candidate Kathleen Williams, featured six panelists, including Horan and Kreilick. Williams stopped just short of sharing her take on the release bills pitched by Daines and her 2018 opponent, Gianforte, instead allowing conservationists, business representatives, off-highway-vehicle users and the audience to drive the debate.

Some felt the bills posed a significant threat to public lands in Montana. Others argued it was high time the government reached a definitive decision on WSAs that have hung in a wilderness limbo for more than four decades. Mike Jeffords, president of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, took issue with what he called “falsehoods” spread by critics of motorized public lands use, and claimed that increased motorized access could be an economic boon for the Bitterroot.

It was exactly the sort of conversation that the people interviewed for this piece — from Daines and Tschida, who maintain that resource extraction and primitive recreation can be accommodated equally, to Kreilick, who values science and natural processes above all — unanimously agreed they’d like to see: robust, multi-faceted and, for the most part, civil. And yet, across the state in Lewistown, Gianforte had convened a last-minute, invite-only discussion of his own that same morning, giving the Missoula conversation an unavoidably politicized feel.

This is the sad reality of the public lands debate in an election year. Just as Republicans have painted Tester and Williams as being in lock-step with a liberal agenda personified by U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrats have attacked Gianforte and Tester-challenger Matt Rosendale as enemies of public lands. In June, the Montana Democratic Party released a video splicing together clips of Rosendale in 2014 advocating for the transfer of control and management of federal lands to the states. Rosendale, who currently serves as state auditor, responded that he’s since grasped Montana’s distaste for that agenda. The portion of his campaign website dedicated to the issue ends with this promise: “As your next U.S. Senator, our public lands will always stay in public hands.”

That’s become easy enough to say in Montana. But given the opportunity to foster more public access this February, Rosendale balked, voting as a member of the state Land Board to indefinitely delay action on a conservation easement in eastern Montana that would have opened 15,000 acres — including 5,000 acres of landlocked public land — to hunters and hikers. In June, Gov. Steve Bullock side-stepped Rosendale and the rest of the board and approved the easement anyway.

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