Beaverhead County residents were pretty evenly divided over the wilderness study area bills before Congress Monday evening, one county official said.
The public meeting to discuss wilderness study areas in Beaverhead County drew around 165 people Monday evening from all across southwest Montana, said Mike McGinley, Beaverhead County commissioner.
Of those, about 120 were from Beaverhead County. An additional 39 came from Butte-Silver Bow, Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Madison, and Gallatin counties. Of those outside residents, 33 were against the WSA bills and five said they supported the bills.
There were an additional six or seven that did not state their address clearly, so their votes may not count, McGinley said.
The wilderness study areas, or WSAs as they're commonly referred to, are public land that Congress asked the agencies to consider as potential protected wilderness around 30 years ago. The agencies made recommendations, but Congress never took action. Consequently, the hundreds of thousands of acres located in multiple counties around Montana remain in limbo status but are treated as if they are protected wilderness with significant restrictions as to their usage.
Beaverhead County Commissioners called the meeting to take the next step in how they will respond to Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte's companion bills in Congress. The two Republicans are asking Congress to consider eliminating all of the wilderness study areas from both U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Some of the land was recommended 30 years ago to remain wild, and some of the land was recommended to return to the public for multiple users.
The issue has become controversial in Montana.
Last fall, Beaverhead County commissioners sent a letter to Daines, which drew the ire of three Beaverhead County residents. Those residents requested public records from the commissioners and said the commissioners needed to hold a public hearing before throwing their support behind the bills.
But Mike McGinley, Beaverhead County commissioner, said Wednesday that part of the reason for the public hearing was to educate the public on the commissioners' actions.
"It's the policy of Beaverhead County to tell Congress to do something with those WSAs. Now we're taking comment on whether the commission will support the bills or not," he said.
Other counties in Montana have sent letters supporting the WSA bills. McGinley said Beaverhead County commissioners support Congress to act on the issue, regardless of what decision Washington D.C. leadership makes.
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But the letter that the Beaverhead County commissioners sent to Gianforte last year said the commissioners support the idea of all of the WSAs returning to multiple-use public land and stressed the importance of revenue, from cell towers to mineral rights, that comes from public land when it is multiple use.
The commissioners will continue to take public comment until Aug. 13. (See information box.) But commissioners are concerned with what their own residents want, not necessarily with what residents who live outside of Beaverhead County want.
Because of that, McGinley said the Beaverhead County commissioners weren't sure what they will do with letters of support from various Montana organizations. Those organizations represent thousands of members, many of which do not necessarily live in Beaverhead County.
Whether this public hearing will spark other counties to hold public meetings on the issue is unclear. Daines's spokespersons have repeatedly said that Daines has held "countless meetings with local stakeholders over the years" and that he is guided by a process that includes the public.
Critics say Daines is carefully choosing who he listens to and that he should consider comment from more than hand-picked supporters.
But a Daines spokesperson defended Daines's position Wednesday.
"The Senator used three criteria while drafting the bill to protect public use of public land, including support from the counties where the Study Areas are located. As this bill was introduced in response to requests from local communities for action and an official request from the Montana Legislature, the Senator will carefully review further input he receives from Beaverhead County on how they want to proceed with the public lands in their community," said Katie Schoettler, Daines's press secretary, by email Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Gianforte said by email Wednesday that the Congressman "will continue talking with Montanans about the issue."
Butte-Silver Bow County resident Joe Griffin drove to the Beaverhead County Search and Rescue building in Dillon Tuesday evening to voice his opposition to the bills, even though he knew his position as a non-resident didn't matter. He said he wanted to support Beaverhead County residents who might fear coming forward.
"It's hard when you're in a minority to speak up," he said.