Like so many other Bitterrooters, we hike, ride horses, hunt, and fish in the back country of the Sapphires and Blue Joint. We return, year after year, to track another bull elk through early season snow in high country meadows, or to catch the alpine larch turn gold along the crest of Kent Peak and the Rooster Comb.

We have the Sapphires and Blue Joint to thank every time we cast a fly in the Bitterroot River or Rock Creek. As natural reservoirs, these areas slowly release clean, cold water into headwater streams, keeping our native trout healthy and enabling the world-class fishing that our recreation economy depends on.

The Blue Joint and Sapphires are a part of the fabric of our lives, which is why it came as an absolute shock to us when Sen. Steve Daines introduced his bill stripping protection from a half-million acres of our wildest and most pristine public lands, including the Blue Joint and Sapphire. We can't understand why he didn't give us the opportunity to tell him how we'd like these areas managed in the long term, why he didn't hold a single public meeting or a town hall anywhere in the state to discuss the bill before he went ahead and introduced it.

Sen. Daines’s so-called “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act” (S2206) is one of those classic Washington, D.C. bills that does the exact opposite of what its title claims. If it passed, it would represent the largest rollback of protected public lands in our state’s 130-year history.

Sen. Daines’ bill would open the door to oil and gas leasing, mining, and damaging OHV traffic in 450,000 acres of our wildest public lands, including 94,000 acres of the Sapphires and 32,000 acres of the Blue Joint.

Put together overnight with zero opportunity for public input, much less good-faith collaboration, Sen. Daines’ bill is not how we do business in Montana. In Ravalli County, our Commissioners decided to endorse S2206 without once asking the Ravalli County Collaborative what it thought about this legislation. If that sounds outrageous, it should. The commissioners put together this appointed collaborative for the purpose of helping to advise the County on public land decisions.

We wished Sen. Daines had followed in the footsteps of Sen. Conrad Burns, who initiated the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership Project in 2006, resulting in broad agreement for public land management on that Forest between the timber industry, motorized recreation, and wilderness advocates. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, a genuine attempt at politically viable solutions would have involved reaching out to all sides and incentivizing a timely agreement for moving forward.

In fact, Congress introduced at least nine balanced, common sense bills between 1983 and 2013 to address the WSAs created by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, one of the lasting conservation legacies of Stevensville native Sen. Lee Metcalf. In 1988, portions of the Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness study areas were designated Wilderness by both houses of Congress, while leaving other portions open to motorized and mechanized uses. Tragically, this bill was pocket vetoed for petty electoral gain.

Sen. Daines, we invite you to join us on a hike or a pack trip into the Sapphires or the Blue Joint. This is God’s country and it’s up to us to pass it on, unimpaired, to future generations.

We also respectfully request that you pull your legislation until you hold hearings across the state and facilitate a transparent process to gather input from people who know these places best and care about them most.

Danielia Kotler, Hamilton, is a river outfitter and owner of SOAR Northwest; Dale Burk, Stevensville, is a lifetime honorary member of Montana Wilderness Association; and Kathy Hundley, Darby, is a member of Selway-Pintler Wilderness Backcountry Horsemen.

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