Many members of Congress have returned to their home states this week to make the rounds at their local offices and meet with constituents.
Montana Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines made a stop Wednesday morning at the western Montana town of Phillipsburg where he toured a craft brewery.
Yellowstone Public Radio’s Nate Hegyi caught up with Daines at the noisy microbrewery.
NATE HEGYI: The GOP’s been criticized for not holding face to face town hall meetings. You guys are off this week. Why not hold a face-to-face town hall meeting?
STEVE DAINES: I tell you what, I’ve been doing this job now for seven years. I’ve been travelling all over Montana. In fact I think there’s only two statewide elected officials to get to all 56 counties every two years, that’s Greg Gianforte and myself. So we’re out engaging with Montanans all the time. The town hall that you hear about is, we, are coming primarily with some of the resistance movements, frankly from the pretty far left folks in the state that’s who is making the loudest noise. It reminds me back when the Tea Party movement was going back in the 2010, 11, I can tell ya, Jon Tester wasn’t holding town halls with the tea party groups. And I think it’s just, they tend to be big protests versus good, civil discourse on the issues facing our country.
Last December Daines introduced a bill that would strip away wilderness protections for more than 358,000 acres of public land comprised mostly of pristine forests, rolling meadows and river gulches across Montana.
These parcels are known as “Wilderness Study Areas” and they’ve been set aside as protected plots without roads since the 1970’s. Daines told YPR’s Nate Hegyi that there was a lot of misinformation about what happens when a Wilderness Study Area is eliminated.
SD: There’s been a lot of misinformation that suggests that some of this will be open to mining and timber harvest… that’s just absolutely false. The 2001 Roadless rule first of all protects these areas. The timber harvest most likely will be limited to fuel reduction projects to reduce the risk of wildfires. There’s very few mining claims in these WSAs and so the misinformation out there frankly is disheartening and concerning and let’s just get the facts. Around what the truth is. I think as Montanans see what the truth is, that these study areas were supposed to have been ajudicated and completed 35 years ago, um, and let’s allow that public the full access to their lands.
One of the Wilderness Study Areas in question is called the Big Snowy Mountains in South-Central Montana near Lewistown.
The open space at the base of the Lewis and Clark National Forest stretches more than 91,000 acres. Daines says there’s some misunderstanding about what his bill would do with Big Snowy and the other Wilderness Study Areas.
SD: There’s a lot of input coming out of Fergus County, a lot of concern about that, and let’s let that process play out. The two criteria I’ve used to include the leases in my WSA release bill are one, that the final plan, Forest Service, that is deemed not suitable for Wilderness and number two, there’s consensus and local support to release it. If those two criteria are met, we’ll go forward with the release. If they’re not met, we need to continue to have discussions on what’s going on in the Big Snowies at the moment is, uh, there’s a lot of concern with folks in Fergus County about that draft plan and I’ll wait to see if that becomes part of the final plan the Forest Service pulls together for the Big Snowies.
NH: Would that change then, your…
SD: It would, if in the final plan it’s considered suitable for Wilderness, then we gotta go back and look at it using the two criteria and that’s why this is very open, dynamic public process, working with the grassroots folks here in Montana as well as the Forest Service in determining the outcome.
Hegyi also questioned Senator Daines about the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project east of Missoula.
Montana Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester has introduced a bill that would protect 79,000 acres of this stretch of land. His bill also would authorize a comprehensive plan for trails that would provide additional access to the Lolo National Forest.
It would open up two-thousand acres of currently closed land to Snowmobiling and would protect access to 3,800 acres for mountain biking and hiking. Senator Daines says he’s taking a wait and see approach to Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater measure.
SD: I tell you what, I’m not getting on that bill until we step back and look at restoring balance here. The fact that we’ve added 100,000 acres of Wilderness Study Area releases, going back to the late ‘80s, we’ve added 1.8 million acres of Wilderness. That balance is not there right now in Montana. So I applaud what that collaborative has done. They’ve done really good work and I’ve worked closely with the Blackfoot Clearwater folks over the last several years but they’re looking to add more Wilderness at a time when we have only released 100,000 acres of WSAs but added 1.8 million acres of Wilderness over the course of the last 30 years.
NH: So, in other words are you not going to support the Blackfoot Clearwater bill until Tester supports the WSA bill? Or…
SD: Isn’t that, don’t you think we need to have some balance here? It seems like it’s kind of a one sided… like we only adding Wilderness now in our state, that’s what… I’ve supported that. I’m just saying, if you listen to our county commissioners, if you listen to tens of thousands of Montanans, we’re very concerned about the fact that the state is getting out of balance. And if you look at driving the outdoor economy, look at the latest report that’s just come out here, driving the outdoor economy, is primarily through a lot of these other motorized sports. That’s the most, where many of the dollars are. I’m an active Wilderness consumer myself. I spent a lot of time in the back country, 70 miles in the Beartooths in August alone. So I get it. And I very much enjoy the Wilderness experience. I just think we need to keep a balance here. So that we have multiple use of the… so the public has the full use of the public lands in Montana, because right now they’re getting locked out in many of these WSAs across our state.
Listen to the full interview below: