As Alec Underwood talked with Sen. Steve Daines Wednesday about Daines' proposal to remove Wilderness Study Area designations in Montana, he was taken aback when Daines referred to two prominent sporting organizations as "fronts ... green decoys."
Underwood, who is a field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said Daines was referring to the Anaconda Sportsman's Club and the Missoula-based Hellgate Hunters and Anglers.
Underwood told Daines that he hunts in the Sapphire WSA, and that the "green decoys" remark "hit me pretty hard."
Daines did not respond specifically to The Montana Standard’s question about the comment. A spokesperson said in a statement that Daines' legislation is "in response to an extensive bottom-up local public process and that same approach will continue to guide his efforts."
Daines was speaking at Granite Sportland in Philipsburg. Daines traveled there Wednesday morning and talked for an hour during a private meeting held with supporters of his Senate bill 2206, which would remove Wilderness Study Area designations for 449,000 acres in Montana.
Daines did not publicly announce he was going to visit Philipsburg to discuss the legislation, but in addition to supporters, about 15 people, including Underwood, showed up to voice concerns about what the legislation would mean for southwest Montana.
Two southwest Montana mountain ranges — the Sapphires and the west Pioneers — would be impacted by the bill. Southwest Montana would lose 245,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in U.S. Forest Service land, according to Gabriel Furshong, deputy executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association.
Furshong called the protected areas “some of the wildest land in Montana.”
Some Anaconda residents are concerned about that loss. Anaconda resident Bill Clark called the bill “wrong.”
Clark attended Tuesday evening’s Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Council of Commissioners meeting, where commissioners voted 5-0 to request that Daines hold a public hearing in their county to discuss the legislation.
Commissioner Kevin Hart said Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Commissioners are not taking sides on the issue with the vote, but are encouraging a public hearing.
Commissioner Chair Terry Vermeire agreed, saying “openness, transparency, I’m all for it. That’s what democracy is all about."
Clark agreed. “I could see giving up some of it (the Wilderness Study Areas),” he told The Montana Standard Tuesday evening. “But we want a voice.”
The issue has created considerable controversy around southwest Montana in recent months. Commissioners for Granite County, where the Sapphire range borders, reversed direction earlier this month, deciding to “strongly support” Daines’ legislation after initially declining to endorse it.
The Montana Wilderness Association and three local residents accused the Beaverhead County Commission last month of violating state open meeting laws by unanimously endorsing the removal of the West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area designation in a September letter to Daines without discussing the move in a public meeting.
Kit Fisher, representing Hellgate Anglers, expressed displeasure over Daines’ alleged comment in Philipsburg.
“He … suggests our members aren't real sportsmen. I can guarantee our members don’t hike mountains, cross frozen rivers, and spend countless hours in the field all so they can pose as hunters opposed to an anti-conservation agenda," Fisher said.
Chris Marchion of Anaconda, longtime leader of the Anaconda Sportsman’s Club and a Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame member, called Daines “sadly out of touch.”
Marchion said the club has not yet taken a position on Daines' legislation, but has called for more public input on the issue.