Progress Towards Wilderness in Montana and Idaho

Posted on Tuesday, December 28th, 2010 by »

Wilderness bills for Idaho and Montana had key senate hearings in this last session of congress.  All four of Idaho’s congressmen, at some point, supported the Boulder White Clouds bill. Both Montana Senators supported the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act which would designate over 600,000 acres of Wilderness, creating Montana’s first new wilderness since 1983. A modified version with language approved by the senate’s committee staff and the forest service came close to passing in mid December.  At the end of this session of congress, both these wilderness bills languished without passage, a huge disappointment; but their progress shows strong support for Wilderness values in our states and in congress.

Congressman Mike Simpson’s proposal for the Boulder White Clouds saw many positive modifications during this last session of congress. Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch co-sponsored a version introduced into the Senate. After a hearing the bill stalled as Senator Risch withdrew his support. Work to revise and improve the bill continued but final approval and passage remained elusive. With each session of congress, successive versions of this bill gain more public, and more political, support. Perhaps, as Congressman Simpson brings this bill back to the next session of congress the right balance will be found which will have the full support Idaho Congressional delegation.

Recent efforts by Senator Jon Tester to pass his long debated forest bill died in the Senate, when a package of legislation including his bill could not advance in the waning days of this session of Congress. The loss is a great disappointment, because the bill included 20 new wilderness areas and over 660,000 acres of wilderness, including some of the premier unprotected wildlands of Montana.

From introduction to Senate hearing and public dialogue, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act has accomplished many positive things. It has moved the issue of wilderness back into the forefront of Montana politics, demonstrated the power of forest users and communities working together, and proven how popular wilderness protection is with voters. Large numbers of Montanans support this effort.  Even though Congress was not able to pass this particular bill it has set the stage for further collaboration and public dialogue  which will lead to legislation that will protect these, and other Montana Landscapes.

Our sincere thanks to Congressman Simpson and Senator Crapo for their work on the Boulder White Clouds and to Senators Tester and Baucus for their great work in moving the ball forward in Montana. They have all shown tremendous character, conviction and ability in striving to break though gridlock in both forest management, and in congress. I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We are fortunate to have courageous congressmen and wilderness advocates in our two states who are committed to continuing this long and hard work!

Wilderness work takes time, patience and a willingness to look past roadblocks and see that they are also often building blocks. Progress, and success, takes time. When we look at what went wrong, and what went right with Wilderness legislation during the last two years of congress we can these that setbacks in the closing days are really just speed bumps – they slow us down and are irritating, but they should not be disabling. In fact, to get this far is a somewhat remarkable feat! We all need to have the courage to continue and to find ways to improve the work we are doing.

The passage of Wilderness legislation for the Owyhees in 2009 shows that Wilderness can be done in our region. Progress on the Boulder White Clouds and FJRA demonstrates there is strong support for Wilderness and that there are political leaders willing to take on the issues and challenges associated with Wilderness legislation and work through them to find the right balance at the right time to be successful.

The Scotchmans campaign represents a less complicated approach to protecting wild country, and may have a better chance of drawing less controversy and avoiding roadblocks in the legislative process. Our board, staff and volunteers are committed to continuing to build and demonstrate the strong support in our region, to protect the wild Scotchmans. With all the work that has been done and experiences of the last few years to draw upon, we believe that our communities and elected leaders will be prepared to move forward with legislation of our own in the next few years.

None of this has happened overnight; it came about because of dedication, passion, vision and patience.  These are the same qualities which will see us prevail in designating new wilderness areas in Idaho and Montana. It’s impossible to say exactly how, when and where these designations will occur. But to see growing public support bring about growing political support suggests that Wilderness is far from a dead issue, and that there ARE areas which will find a pathway forward to becoming designated as Wilderness. We believe this will in some form, at some time, include the Scotchman Peaks.

About The Author:

Phil Hough is the Executive Director of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.

An avid long distance hiker, Phil's experience on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trails brought a passion for wild places and motivated him to work towards protecting the one of the last and largest wild places in northern Idaho and Western Montana, the Scotchman Peaks.

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