PHILIPSBURG — Commissioners for Granite County reversed direction Tuesday and decided to “strongly support” controversial legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines that would release the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area and four other WSAs in Montana from consideration for wilderness designation.
The unanimous vote by the three commissioners to change course followed hearing from about 45 people who crowded into the board’s small meeting room in the Granite County Courthouse. The overwhelming majority encouraged the commissioners to support opening at least a portion of the Sapphire WSA to uses that would be prohibited by wilderness designation. Most of these speakers said the commission should support Republican Daines’ bill.
People in that camp included Bill Antonioli, who said Granite County’s economy will benefit if multiple-use issues are resolved.
Only a handful of people advocated for a more conservative approach — one that would retain the Sapphire WSA protection until the area’s future management could be thoroughly debated in a public and collaborative process.
Chris Marchion, a regional resident with a long history of advocating for wildlife and conservation, told commissioners he believed the county would have more leverage if it stuck to the position they announced in December and declined to support Daines’ bill.
“I support your letter as it was originally written,” said Marchion, who is a representative of a group called “Our Land, Our Legacy,” recently formed to defend public lands managed as wilderness study areas.
In December, the board had declined to write a letter of support for Daines’ Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act.
A Dec. 19 letter to Daines' office from Granite County’s commissioners informed the senator that the board had decided unanimously to decline that request from Daines' staff.
The letter, signed by then-Commission Chairman Barton Bonney, said commissioners had received public comment — via emails, phone messages and the appearance of more than 20 people in their office — objecting to releasing the Sapphire WSA from consideration for wilderness designation.
The Sapphire WSA includes about 94,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest and portions of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The Montana Wilderness Association describes the Sapphire WSA as “the biological heartland of the wilderness complex that stretches from the Big Hole Valley to the pristine headwaters of Rock Creek.”
The Dec. 19 letter from Granite County’s commissioners also emphasized the area’s ecological significance and importance to fish and game.
“We feel that the characteristics of the Sapphire WSA are significantly different than any other WSA due to the nearly two dozen lakes that feed blue-ribbon trout streams, as well as secure habitat for big game and other wildlife,” the commissioners wrote.
On Tuesday, commissioners made no mention of wildlife habitat or blue-ribbon trout streams, either during the meeting’s discussion or in the revised letter completed and signed afterward.
The revised version, submitted to both Daines and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, expressed unequivocal support for Daines’ bill.
“After hearing much public comment regarding the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area issues and associated issues from the residents of Granite County over the past few months, we strongly support Senator Daines’ sponsored U.S. Senate Bill 2206. We encourage all members of the U.S. Senate to support this bill as well. It is time to move forward and act for the people of Granite County.”
Of course, not everyone in Granite County felt the commission’s change in position reflected the needs of all.
Sue Peterson, a rancher in Drummond, attended Tuesday’s meeting and, like Marchion, expressed support for the commission’s earlier stance.
Peterson, Marchion and Zack Porter of the Montana Wilderness Association had anticipated the commission would follow through and appoint a Wilderness Study Advisory Committee to tackle management recommendations for the Sapphire WSA before expressing support for Daines’ bill.
After the meeting, Peterson said she was disappointed commissioners “didn’t allow the democratic process to play out.”
She said the board had decided to “ignore the voices of hikers, backpackers, horseback riders, hunters, anglers, photographers, cross-country skiers and other quiet backcountry users.”
Board Chairman Bill Slaughter said the role of the advisory committee had been miscommunicated. He said he intended for the committee to focus not only on Daines’ bill but also on forest management in general for what is now the Sapphire WSA.
Porter described that updated mission statement as “a revision of history.”
Marchion said the commission’s actions Tuesday were “not consistent with the conversations we had in the previous three meetings and the values expressed in those meetings.”
When Daines announced Protect Public Use of Public Lands, a Dec. 7 press release touting the proposed legislation cited letters of support from boards of commissioners in Beaverhead, Fergus, Judith Basin and Ravalli counties for release of wilderness study areas that included: the Sapphire, the Big Snowies, the Middle Fork Judith, the West Pioneer and the Blue Joint.
That reference to letters from commissioners led to allegations that boards in those counties had failed to follow the letter or spirit of state open meeting laws when they drafted and submitted statements of support.
Meanwhile, Slaughter said Tuesday that he has received assurances from Daines’ office that there would be no major changes in forest management of the Sapphire WSA without substantial public input if the WSA designation is eliminated.
Porter later described that belief as naïve.
The commission’s letter from Tuesday notes: “We also understand that once Senate Bill 2206 is passed as currently proposed, that we would, along with the residents of Granite County, have considerable input in the forest management plan regarding the Sapphire area within Granite County.”