by Eve Byron, Independent Record
Sixteen former council members of the Montana Wilderness Association – including four past presidents – publicly denounced Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act on Wednesday, adding that MWA has compromised its mission by being a party to the legislation.
In a letter sent to Montana’s media outlets, the 16 former MWA board members noted that “it is with a heavy heart” that they feel compelled to oppose the MWA and Tester’s bill unless changes are made, and that the organization has “lost its way.”
“This bill will irreparably damage Montana’s dwindling public wildland legacy. It will salt the gaping social wounds created by MWA’s recent actions. It degrades the Wilderness Act of 1964 with provisions that damage both wilderness and the wilderness idea,” the group wrote. “…Most of Montana’s undeveloped wilds are long gone, and we cannot afford to lose big chunks of what remains. We believe that in recent years, the Montana Wilderness Association has clearly compromised its long-held wildland protection mission and vigilant advocacy.”
Daphne Herling, president of the 5,000-member MWA, said that while they respect those who wrote the letter – calling them “stalwarts of wilderness protection in the past” – her organization disagrees with their opinions of the bill and the direction MWA is heading.
“We do not believe that we are selling out by creating a partnership that’s so groundbreaking and so positive in its collaborative aspects,” Herling said. “We are getting jobs, we are getting wilderness and we feel that it’s just a wonderful opportunity to do good things for the people of Montana and good things for wildlands in Montana. We feel very good about being a part of this and the vast majority of our members do too.”
Two of those who signed the letter, former MWA board member Larry Campbell and former MWA president Elaine Snyder, said it wasn’t easy to openly criticize the organization best known in Montana for the effort to protect roadless and proposed wilderness areas.
But they added that they feel MWA has strayed significantly from its mission not just in the past few years by helping craft Tester’s legislation -which includes mandated logging – but also for evolving from a mainly volunteer, grassroots organization to one with a corporate structure that doesn’t listen as much to its members.
“Over the years, MWA has become a corporate type, heavy in managing themselves and their members, what their agenda will be and what they will move forward on that agenda,” said Snyder, MWA president from 1985-1987. “To some degree, I think change is good but I think the original intent of wilderness was citizens could bring bills before their Congressperson …not to bring legislation that lifts wilderness study areas and mandates a cut (logging).”
In their letter, the former MWA board members said that the release of protections for some areas, including wilderness study areas designated in 1977 by the late Sen. Lee Metcalf, will “create widespread environmental damage and the loss of an irreplaceable legacy for which future generations will, quite correctly, hold ours accountable.
“… To make matters worse, the bill includes special provisions for new ‘Wilderness’ units that defy both the intent and letter of the Wilderness Act and the spirit of Wilderness that so many Americans believe is a vital and wondrous part of this great nation’s heritage.”
Tester’s bill would give wilderness protection to more than 670,000 acres in Montana, and timber harvest would be prohibited on another 225,000 acres of National Recreation Areas, for close to 1 million acres of protected land. But it also mandates logging on 7,000 acres per year for 10 years in the Beaverhead/Deerlodge National Forest and 3,000 acres annually in the Kootenai National Forest, and lifts protections for about 1 million acres of roadless areas protected under former President Bill Clinton’s Roadless Rule.
Montana hasn’t had any new wilderness designated since 1983, and some theorize that Tester’s current bill is a desperate attempt by MWA officials to change that.
“While MWA does a lot of major fundraising and hobnobbing with politicians and whatnot, we haven’t seen them a lot out there protecting wildlands,” Campbell said.
He added that MWA President Tim Baker, in his December testimony before a Congressional Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee, opposed parts of Tester’s legislation that wasn’t included in the original agreement hammered out among members of Montana’s environmental, logging, recreation and business communities.
“The partnership itself stepped on a lot of toes and they sacrificed a lot of wildlands. Then, in the transition between that partnership and Sen. Tester’s bill, wilderness was hammered a lot more,” Campbell said. “They’re adjusting the wilderness boundaries to be smaller and making concessions to the snowmobiling associations and bike riders. But MWA didn’t let go even then, and kept their support for the bill.
“My question is how bad does the bill have to get before MWA or other national wilderness organizations back off of this bill?”
Baker wasn’t able to be reached Wednesday, but an attachment to his Dec. 17 testimony notes that the partnership proposed a contiguous 92,800 acres of wilderness in the West Big Hole, and that Tester’s bill cut that by about 50,000 acres to address concerns raised by motorized users, mountain bikers and the Beaverhead County Commissioners. Tester’s bill also cut 8,000 acres of a proposed 34,400-acre wilderness area in the West Pioneers in the original agreement and removed Wilderness Study Area protections from 150,000 acres that were in place under the initial proposal.
In Baker’s testimony, he objected to those changes. Herling added, though, that they knew compromises and changes to the partnership’s proposal would be made, and that MWA and the other partners to the proposal will continue to stand by the legislation.
“The partners are very committed to each other and we certainly said in public many times that this is something we will be together with for a long time,” Herling said. “I think this is a new day and the old style of politics no longer is working and hasn’t worked for years. We need something refreshing and new, with people working together, and I think Sen. Tester has taken that message to heart.”