A group of Ravalli County citizens hope that an advertising campaign featuring six-angry-looking people on a billboard and yard signs will make the county commission rethink its stance on wilderness study areas.
Calling itself “Our Land, Our Legacy,” the organization asks the commission to rescind its letter of support of Sen. Steve Daines' bill that would end protection for five wilderness study areas, including the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs in Ravalli County.
Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott said Tuesday there were no plans to revisit the issue.
The Ravalli County Commission was one of four county commissions that wrote letters of support for Daines’ proposed legislation last year. After fielding complaints that the letter was written without adequate public comment, the commission hosted a well-attended public meeting in February.
The Our Land, Our Legacy organization claims the commission disregarded public input from that meeting when it opted to stand behind its original letter.
“The Ravalli County commissioners have turned a deaf ear to the grave concerns we have about opening up the Blue Joint and Sapphire to industrial development,” said Kathy Hundley, a substitute school teacher and backcountry horsewoman who lives in Darby. “We have a personal stake in the future of public lands in our backyard and the commissioners are refusing to respect that, leaving us with no choice but to launch this campaign.”
The yard signs and ads feature six Ravalli County residents, including Hundley; Kirk Thompson, Stevensville; Marilyn Wolff, Stevensville; Butch Waddill, Florence; Kay Fulton, Victor; and Ty Stubblefield, Florence.
The signs and ads say, “Ravalli Commissioners: Respect the public you work for. Respect public lands.”
“The Ravalli County commissioners sent this letter without first consulting with the people they represent,” said Waddill, a retired Marine Corps combat veteran and former representative to the Montana Legislature who has lived in Florence for the past 21 years. “When we finally got the opportunity to speak to them directly about the letter and Daines’ bill at a commission meeting in February, they decided to act in defiance of what an overwhelming majority requested they do — rescind that letter.”
The organization said three out of four of the 72 people who testified during the hearing were opposed to Daines’ bill.
“The meeting made it apparent that the Ravalli commissioners are more interested in appeasing Daines than they are in representing the interests of their constituents,” said Stubblefield, chapter coordinator at Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “We are here to remind the commissioners whom they work for.”
The group also claimed that 80 percent of the people who testified were residents of Ravalli County and took Commissioner Greg Chilcott to task for comments they say he made at a Montana Association of Counties meeting claiming that many, if not most, were from Missoula.
“It sounds to me like Commissioner Chilcott was openly insulting everyone who showed up to the Feb. 6 meeting wanting to have a say on the future of public lands we use,” said Wolff, a retired benefits and resource specialist. “That kind of statement might get a laugh at MACo meetings, but it’s a reprehensible thing for one of our elected officials to say.”
Chilcott said Tuesday the minutes from the MACo meetings indicate he said something different.
“I called the two people who took the minutes and asked them what I said,” Chilcott said. “Both said, ‘No, you said a lot of people were from outside Ravalli County.’”
Chilcott stands firm the commission’s decision on the letter was the right one.
“We are elected by a majority of citizens of the county,” he said. “The feedback we get is, 'Stay the ground. You are doing the right thing.'”
Sometimes the commission makes decisions that make people unhappy, Chilcott said.
“That’s just part of the job,” he said. “We’re a representative republic. The minority often times doesn’t get the decision in their favor. That’s pretty much the position we’re in right now.
“I was hoping we could keep this dialogue not only civil, but factual,” he said. “It seems to be digressing from there. No one talking about limiting access to public lands. No one is talking about divesting public lands. In fact the board of county commissioners, I believe, are trying to enhance the access to public lands.”
When lands are managed as wilderness, the segment of the population that prefers to explore on an ATV, snowmobile or bicycle gets left out, he said.
“Those people not allowed access,” Chilcott said. “We believe this opens up public lands to more public.”
Chilcott said there’s not been any talk by the commission of revisiting the decision to support Daines’ bill that would remove the WSA protection.