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In reference to S. 2206, recently introduced into the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I am deeply disappointed and disturbed by the letter of support sent by the Ravalli County commissioners. The bill will remove the special management provisions now in place that govern the national forest administration of the Sapphire, Blue Joint and two other wilderness study areas in Montana.

These key high-elevation, 6,500-8,500-feet roadless watersheds hold the snowpack that feeds the groundwater, river and streams, especially through the hot summer months. In those summer months, this water sustains the Bitterroot trout fishery as well as the critical late summer water for agriculture, recreation, domestic and commercial uses. It is the lifeblood of our valley.

And now, without any public input or discussion, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, his supporters in the extractive industries, the snowmobilers, off-road vehicle users, mountain bikers and the current administration have put forth a measure that will certainly risk the integrity of those watersheds. Daines has not been forthright and upfront with the citizens most impacted by his proposed legislation.

Under the Creative Act of 1897, which established the Forest Reserves, the first and foremost charge of the act was to protect the watersheds within the reserves. From that directive comes the use and protection of other resources, but not to the detriment of the watershed and the water they generate. The Bitter Root and Sapphire ranges encompass the Bitterroot Valley and are a complete watershed, a valuable asset that sustains the valley.

Science has told us the most productive and vital watersheds are in higher-elevation roadless, wilderness areas. So to open these areas to logging, mining and off-road vehicle use is to risk the sustainability and integrity of those areas. (Please refer to the Columbia River Basin Ecosystem Management Study.)

The administration and the Republican Congress have deeply cut the Forest Service budget. Should our high-elevation watersheds be opened to snowmobiles, mountain bikes and four-wheelers, or logging and mining, there is no funding available to insure protection or restoration of water resources.

Perhaps it is time to re-study the wilderness study areas and this time around include the effects of climate change and increased populations, which bring more demand for water. Has anybody noticed the wave of folks coming to the Bitterroot because it has clean air, good water and open space? Or because Missoula is becoming overcrowded, too much traffic, etc.?

It takes knowledge, vision and leadership to understand the need to sustain and protect the integrity of our watersheds. Were it not for the foresight, wisdom, knowledge and courage of some of our previous leaders, we would not be blessed with the public lands that produce the abundant water resources we have today.

I hope that all citizens in Montana will call Senator Daines’ office and voice their objection to S. 2206.

John D. Grove is a retired forester with the U.S. Forest Service.

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