A Missoula-based conservation group is calling one of Sen. Conrad Burns’ latest legislative proposals “appalling” and “the single worst” attack on the nation’s wilderness system since its creation in 1964.
George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, says Burns’ proposal late last month to grant Bitterroot Valley irrigators rights-of-way into portions of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and allowing for motorized travel and maintenance of irrigation dams would set a precedent that could spell disaster for federally designated wilderness areas across the West.
“If the irrigators on Bitterroot get to build roads in the wilderness to get to their dams, owners of dams located in other wilderness areas are going to want the same thing,” says Nickas.
In a press release announcing the legislation, Burns states that efficient access is critical to keeping the dams safe and useable. He says his bill will protect water rights, help sustain irrigation and improve the environment.
“It’s a win for all Montanans,” Burns claims.
The Rattlesnake Wilderness, designated by Congress in 1980, is the only wilderness area in the National Wilderness Preservation System that specifically allows motorized access for the purpose of maintaining dams. That’s because up until 1983 eight lakes in the Rattlesnake provided up to 40 percent of Missoula’s drinking water, and continue to serve as an emergency water source for the city.
According to Arvid Hiller, vice president and general manager of Mountain Water Company, work crews drive into the Rattlesnake every year in August and September to clear existing roads and remove debris from the dams and stream channels.
Elsewhere, in 2001 Congress amended the Utah Wilderness Act of 1984 to make adjustments to the boundaries of the Mount Nebo Wilderness Area in the Wasatch Range to allow for the maintenance of local drinking water supplies.
But Burns’ proposal would provide irrigators with virtually unfettered access to 16 dams in the Selway-Bitterroot, including the ability to build new roads up to 60 feet wide and use motorized vehicles, aircraft and machinery in the wilderness.
Nickas says S.2633 is unlikely to pass, but given Burns’ position on the Interior Appropriations Committee, it’s possible that harmful provisions of the measure could slip through as riders on a must-pass appropriations bill.
“We can’t ignore Burns’ bill,” says Nickas. “This is far and away the absolutely most destructive Wilderness provision we have ever seen.”