Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service (MT)


HELENA, Mont. – A measure in the state Legislature could remove protections from a Wilderness Study Area in southwestern Montana. Opponents see it as effort to repeal other study areas in a top-down manner.

Senate Joint Resolution 7 would remove Hidden Pasture Creek’s study-area designation. The designations are aimed at determining if the areas have wilderness characteristics.

Jack Kirkley is a professor of biology at the University of Montana Western who noted he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the school. He agreed that it’s time to resolve the issue of these study areas, but said passing resolutions in the Legislature is not right way.

“Simply saying here’s our resolution to take it away and not have any further study or consideration of it is sort of shortcutting the input by citizens,” said Kirkley.

A report from the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council last year determined a collaboration among many stakeholders was the best way to approach Montana’s study areas. In state Sen. Jeff Welborn – R-Dillon’s – resolution, he said the designation precludes Beaverhead County from addressing transportation issues within the area.

The resolution has a hearing today in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

In 2017 and 2018, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and former U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced legislation in Congress that would have stripped Wilderness Study Areas in Montana of their designations.

Mike Wilkinson is a former U.S. Forest Service employee who lives in Wise River. He said there has been local opposition to opening these areas up.

“The public input is important,” said Wilkinson, “and these politicians can’t just make decisions about public lands without consulting the people that live there.”

Kirkley said public input is an integral part of this process.

“If you don’t have a collaborative process, then you really won’t have a public buy-in because people want to know that they weren’t closed out of the discussion,” said Kirkley. “It’s public lands. There’s a lot of sentiment that we own the land and we should have a say in it.”

Conservation groups including the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation and Business for Montana’s Outdoors sent a letter urging the Senate Natural Resources Committee to withdraw Senate Joint Resolution 7 and move forward with a collaborative approach to study areas.