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Five Montana Wilderness Study Areas have been locked in federal administrative limbo for some 41 years, since Lee Metcalf first proposed them for wilderness designation in 1977.

While that fact irritates those who would like to use them for non-wilderness purposes, the WSAs, as they are known, are intact roadless areas that have been treated like the wildlands they were in 1977. As a result, they are still exactly that.

Since Sen. Steve Daines introduced S2206, which would strip the areas of their wilderness study status and allow them to be managed for "multiple use," there's been a lot of turbulence around the issue across the state, but particularly in southwest Montana.

Daines makes the very valid point that these lands are overdue for a resolution — a permanent status. The differences we have with him lie partly with what that status should be, and greatly in how it should be determined.

Certainly, Daines' move to remove the wilderness tag on this land makes us uneasy. Take the two WSAs closest to Butte, the West Pioneers and Sapphire WSAs.

The West Pioneers, a sprawling, 151,000-acre area within Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, contains significant parts of the Big Hole's headwaters.

Land-use decisions made upstream always impact what lies below. That's played out time and time again in this West we love, in these Northern Rockies with the annual rush of snowmelt. It's played out from the mines of Butte to Milltown, and from countless streams, degraded by siltation from logging and roading or acid rock drainage from mining, to their larger, vital downstream waters.

For its part, the Sapphire WSA contains many relatively untouched — and fragile — high-altitude lakes.

Of course, multiple use means help for the extractive economy in our state, but our outdoor economy segment is equally crucial to the state's present and future. Degrading the quality of a fishery like the Big Hole would be disastrous.

But our largest concern is about the need for transparency in the process of change. Such momentous decisions as changing the use and stewardship of 500,000 currently unspoiled acres of public lands should not be made without hearing from Montanans in a highly organized and inclusive fashion.

Before a "solution" is put on paper as federal legislation, affected citizens should have been allowed — nay, encouraged — to speak their piece in public. 

Sen. Daines has not only not held any public meetings on this issue — he has actively avoided engaging with opponents of his bill in the state.

This comes at a time when some of the state's most respected and dependable environmental watchdogs are up in arms. They say we are facing an unprecedented assault on our public lands, and the WSA issue is at the tip of the spear.

So Senator, before moving this bill forward, won't you set up some public meetings so that all sides can come and discuss these decisions of enormous consequence?

In Montana, we like our government the same way we like our water — clean, clear and public.


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