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About 10 years ago, we began attending meetings of what would become the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. We went because, as outfitters and as backcountry horseman and woman, we wanted to have a say on how public lands in the Blackfoot and Clearwater drainages were going to be managed for the long haul, especially those lands adjoining the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas. After all, we ride and outfit in these lands regularly, we love them, and we want to see them protected.

The meetings were a little intimidating at first, because sitting across from us were people we thought would be at odds with our interests, such as timber mill operators, snowmobilers, ranchers, local small business owners, and eventually, mountain bikers.

This public dialogue involving so many different public land users – which also included conservationists, hunters, anglers, and others – proved to be invaluable in hammering out a proposal for the Blackfoot Clearwater that everyone could be happy with. This process is also what has made the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act so popular among Montanans. According to a University of Montana poll released this week, 73 percent of Montanans support the BCSA.

The dearth of public involvement that has gone into Senator Steve Daines’ and Congressman Greg Gianforte’s legislation eliminating protection from 29 wilderness study areas (WSAs) is what makes their proposals so unpopular. The same poll found that a mere 11 percent of Montanans support what that legislation would do.

Over the past few months, over 2,500 Montanans have signed an open letter to our congressional delegation calling on them to take a different approach to our WSAs, one that is balanced, bipartisan, and inclusive. Governor Bullock spoke for a lot of Montanans when he wrote in a letter to Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte, “I am particularly troubled by the lack of public engagement used to formulate these [WSA] proposals. All Montanans value their public lands and have a stake in their future management.”

When the two of us joined those initial BCSA meetings, we did a lot of talking, more than we probably should have. But eventually we learned to listen to others at the table, to hear what they wanted and needed. We heard timber mill operators talk about the need for creating more jobs in the area. We heard snowmobilers talk about the areas they wanted to enjoy but couldn’t. We heard mountain bikers talk about preserving some of the access they had come to enjoy and didn’t want to see taken away.

Eventually, we started to understand each other and realized that we occupied common ground – in the love we have for the public lands we were addressing.

That’s when a proposal started to take shape. The collaborative work we did on the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act has become a model for other place-based proposals and could be a model for resolving future management for Montana’s 44 wilderness study areas (WSAs).

Unfortunately, Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte have so far refused to take a collaborative approach to determining the future of our WSAs. In fact, they’ve refused to hold public meetings and hearings. They’ve locked Montanans out of the process, and it’s showing in how Montanans are reacting to these bills.

Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte, our public lands belong to hunters, anglers, bird watchers, wilderness advocates, and others as much as they belong to the handful of county commissioners, mining and oil executives, and others you’ve cherry- picked to support your bills. It’s time to involve Montanans, and not just a few, in the fate of our wilderness study areas.

Connie and Mack Long own Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters.

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