By Dave Stalling
Congressional stalemates have held up legislation for years that could create the first new wilderness designations Montana has seen in a generation. But there’s hope that the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary in 2014 will provide the thrust needed to turn these significant bills into law.
Montana is home to 16 wilderness areas, totaling 3.5 million acres. They sustain thousands of species of flora and fauna, including threatened and endangered species. The Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwest Montana, at more than a million acres, is one of the largest and most ecologically complete wilderness areas in the nation. Not to mention one of the first, created in 1964 as part of the initial legislation. In 2014, the Bob Marshall may see an expansion that would be the first designation of wilderness in Montana in 30 years.
Two bills in Congress that started from grassroots movements in Montana, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, would create a combined total of 767,000 acres of new wilderness across Montana.
“There would be no better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act,” said Zack Porter, NexGen wilderness leaders program director for the Montana Wilderness Association.
Both bills have been in Congress for several years but haven’t been passed because of the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., during recent years, when only large crucial bills have been signed into law. Porter said both bills have the support of Montana’s senators, the Forest Service, and a huge spectrum of business leaders and residents in the state. All they need is a final push. The Wilderness Association hopes the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act will provide that momentum.
“It’s something that defines us, we are all about living near and getting out in these amazing wild places,” Porter said. “It’s part of who we are here in Montana.”
Dave Stalling of Missoula is a writer, activist, past president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and recipient of the 2000 Montana Conservationist of the Year Award. He earned degrees in wildlife and journalism from the University of Montana in 1989.