Legislators told collaboration will produce answer to Wilderness Study Area deadlock

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Finding a way to reach a compromise on the long-stalled delisting of Montana Wilderness Study Areas, or conversely the adoption of those lands as wilderness, will take partnerships, a legislative committee was told on Wednesday.

“Collaboration is the driving force,” said John Hagengruber, Forest Service liaison to the state.

“I feel bad for people working on something for 20 years and seeing it get washed away,” said Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, who is chairman of the EQC. “We need to do better than that.”

The difficulty of the task ahead, though, was evident in the testimony given to the council. While several speakers with wilderness, hunting and logging ties championed collaborative groups as the best means to reach a decision, a few testified that the composition of the group, as well as the information it possessed, could sway decision making. It was also noted that buy-in from everyone in the state’s congressional delegation, no matter their political affiliation, would be key.

Nancy Ostlie, a Bozeman member of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, was one of the few naysayers. She said collaboration is a good tool for people who share essentially the same interest, but not for those who are diametrically opposed. In the past, Ostlie said she had been “denigrated” for her views when speaking at collaborative meetings.

Nancy Schultz of the Gallatin Wildlife Association said that when collaborators failed to come to a decision while working on the Custer Gallatin National Forest, a new group was formed that excluded her.

“WSAs are what Montanans want,” she said referring to polling numbers.

Several other people who addressed the group said collaboration will work and is the best way to reach an agreement on Wilderness Study Areas.

“After 40 years and numerous attempts to resolve Wilderness Study Areas … I think we’re at the point where we can get these issues resolved,” said Tony Colter of Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge.

Colter is the chairman of a Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest working group that he said has made positive gains while engaging a variety of different forest users.

Likewise, Barb Cestero of The Wilderness Society said collaborative groups she’s worked with on the Custer Gallatin National Forest have been successful, but only when the members are interested in a compromise and not just advancing their own agenda, a comment that Ostlie took as an offense. If there’s a reason collaboration hasn’t worked, Cestero said, it’s because “elected leaders haven’t moved recommendations forward.”

One of the members of the EQC who did not speak during the hearing was Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman. In 2017 White advanced a House joint resolution that urged the U.S. Congress to release Montana’s WSAs on Forest Service land from wilderness consideration.

On the heels of that action in 2018 U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte authored legislation in Congress that would have lifted protections on all 29 Montana WSAs, including those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Sen. Steve Daines also introduced a bill that would have lifted WSA protection on almost 450,000 acres of Forest Service WSAs. Both lawmakers took heat for not conducting public hearings on their proposals.

“Let’s face it, the politics always come into it,” Keane said. “But how can we get by that?”

Bill Avey, the forest supervisor for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, said that in his 31 years working in Montana collaboration can work by putting “folks with diametrically opposed positions” together in a room to respectfully listen to each other, only then will a better informed decision be crafted.

Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, questioned Avey about how the Forest Service can build trust as an agency with any group when staff are constantly coming and going. Avey acknowledged that transience is common in the Forest Service, which can make the process difficult over the long haul.

Rep. Brad Hamlett, R-Cascade, questioned whether the EQC could change the situation that has been in limbo since the 1980s.

“We’re not making any decisions, and nobody is happy,” he said.

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