Many Montanans were surprised and delighted to wake up to Monday’s headlines proclaiming: “Great Day for Public Lands.” After eight years of environmental torture under the Bush administration, suddenly the U.S. Senate moved quickly and decisively in the first week of the new Congress to protect vast swaths of federal lands and designate millions of acres of new wilderness throughout the nation. Except, that is, for one place: Montana, the Last Best Place. So here’s the seminal question: Why no new Montana wilderness?
The measure, which was appropriately titled the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, zipped through the Senate on a 66-12 vote during a rare Sunday session. A compilation of more than 160 individual wilderness and public lands bills from both Republicans and Democrats, the measure protects thousands of miles of rivers and millions of acres of mountains, forests, deserts and critical fisheries.
Sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the legislation establishes eight new wilderness areas on Mt. Hood encompassing some 127,000 acres, including the addition of 80 miles on nine rivers that will be added to the National Wild and Scenic River System. Add to that another 23,000 acres in southeastern Oregon now protected as the Soda Mountain Wilderness where the desert meets the mountains, and another 8,600 acres of new Spring Basin Wilderness near the John Day Wild and Scenic River, which flows into the Columbia River. Not far to the west, 31,000 rugged acres just east of Bend are now the Badlands Wilderness, Oregon’s first desert wilderness.
And how about the more than half-million acres in the Owhyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands of southwestern Idaho? Nearly 315 miles of rivers received protection in the single largest such designation since the creation of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness three decades ago.
But why stop there? California gets 85,000 acres of new wilderness in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, protecting its largest stand of Giant Sequoia trees and the state’s largest cave, while adding another 190,000 acres of wilderness and 31 miles of rivers in California’s desert country. Plus, the Golden State cashes in with another half-million acres for the 14,000-foot mountains in the Eastern Sierra and San Gabriel areas, with 73 miles of new Wild and Scenic River designation and another 40,000 acres of wildland protection in northern Los Angeles County.
Colorado scored, too, gaining wilderness designation for 250,000 acres in and around Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Add to that the 200,000-acre Dominguez-Escalante Canyons National Conservation Area with 66,000 acres of new wilderness.
Meanwhile, down in New Mexico, 15,000 acres in San Miguel County just received designation as the Sabinoso Wilderness Area. And even Utah, long an opponent of new wilderness, gets 256,000 acres in Washington County while establishing the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Areas, and protecting more than 160 miles of the famed Virgin River in Zion National Park and surrounding areas.
Nor did lawmakers confine themselves to the West’s wide-open spaces. Michigan wound up with 11,739 acres of new wilderness at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Virginia got protection for 43,000 acres of new wilderness and another 12,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas near the Appalachian Trail. West Virginia picked up 37,000 acres of wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest, creating three new wilderness areas and expanding three existing areas—the first new wilderness in that state in 25 years.
Not only that, but some 2,800 miles of new trails were added to federal lands while protecting rivers in Arizona and Massachusetts and authorizing a massive water project to restore salmon fisheries in California’s San Joaquin River Valley.
Even the ocean benefited, with four new provisions to study ocean acidification, enhance mapping, conduct undersea research and preserve oceanic resources and the coasts, as well as the Great Lakes. It also authorizes funding to protect coasts and estuaries that have significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical, aesthetic or watershed values.
After reading the astounding breadth of this landmark legislation, one has to wonder again: Why no new Montana wilderness areas? Certainly there are plenty of deserving places here. The state is dotted with Wilderness Study Areas that have been on hold for decades, there are tens of thousands of acres of additions that could and should be added to existing wilderness areas, and our rivers, which are the stuff of legend worldwide, would certainly have benefited from more Wild and Scenic River designation and protection.
But none of that happened.
Instead, the legislation’s only reference to Montana was the transfer of the Elkhorn Ghost Town cemetery to Jefferson County, which is, to say the least, a rather underwhelming accomplishment considering Montana is the fourth largest state and is represented by senior Sen. Max Baucus, who wields incredible influence and power as the chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
The national articles reporting on the amazing passage of the act included not a word about Montana, however, nor a single quote from a Montana wilderness advocacy group—not one. The Montana Wilderness Association and the Wilderness Society simply weren’t part of the story.
If you wonder why Montana is sitting on the sidelines while the nation moves forward into post-Bush progressivism, it may just be because the efforts to secure new Montana wilderness areas seem mired in the Republican-dominated past—still trying to hammer out secret deals with timber companies whose future is entirely dictated not by timber supply in roadless areas, but by economic conditions in which there is simply no demand. If supply isn’t the problem, cutting more trees obviously isn’t the solution, which even industry leaders are finally acknowledging. Likewise, so-called “stewardship logging,” in which timber receipts pay for forest restoration, is bankrupt, with no market for the product.
Montanans have every right to ask why we were not included in this legislation—and we have every right to expect some straight answers from our political leaders.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.