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Our favorite stories about public lands and opportunities for you to get involved in protecting your outdoor experiences.


Trip Report: Montana State Hearing for Wilderness Study Areas

Outdoor Alliance

Photo credit: Hunter Day

Photo credit: Hunter Day

Guest post by Chris Ennis, an active member of our Outdoor Alliance Montana regional network, as well as Winter Wildlands Alliance and American Whitewater

I’d never witnessed the legislative process in action before I went to testify in opposition to Montana Joint House Resolution 9 (H.R. 9). H.R. 9 was introduced in early February. While it’s not the worst bill, it is a symbolic gesture threatening public lands that seem to be so popular amongst the new sagebrush rebels.

What is H.R. 9? In a nutshell, when Congress passed the act to create Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) the idea was to study the land in question for a period of 5 years, after which a recommendation would be made to Congress to either designate the area as Wilderness or give it some other designation. This was in 1977. Today Montana still has almost a million acres of WSAs. HR 9 asks Congress to “release” seven of Montana’s study areas back to the Forest Service to be managed as “multi-use” (meaning extraction, road building, and motorized use) ignoring the citizen based collaborative efforts working hard to recommend to the forest service a management scenario that reflects the use of the WSAs in 2017.

Why does this matter? Congress is unlikely to act because the state of Montana sent them a letter (although lately, it seems like anything is possible). From my perspective as a sales rep in the outdoor industry, this legislation is more than symbolic. It represents a direct attack on my industry and a key economic driver of our western states. The current status of the Outdoor Retailer show in Utah is a prime example of symbolic acts having large consequences. Governor Herbert and the UT congressional delegation have sent a letter asking the new President to rescind the designation of Bear’s Ears as a National Monument. Even if this petitioning is unlikely to succeed, this anti-public land sentiment caused a cascade of events leading the show to leave Utah in search of a more recreation and public land friendly home. Bills like H.R. 9 in Montana send the same message as Utah, a message that public lands don’t matter. And that is not a message that myself or my industry want associated with our home state.

So that’s why I found myself in the hearing room of the Natural Resource Committee on president’s day while most of my friends were out skiing (yes, I skipped a powder day - it was worth it). The room was packed, mostly with opponents of H.R. 9. When it was time to give testimony I paid close attention to the people who resonated with the legislators and I’d like to pass on what I learned.

  • Time is short- be concise so others have time to speak.
  • Think back to high school English and the 5-paragraph essay format: state your thesis, support it clearly with evidence, make a succinct conclusion, and tell the committee how you would like for them to vote.
  • Emotion is great but facts are greater.

In every hearing you’re going to have folks on your side and folks against you - try to make your point with facts that help the legislators who are on your side. Pretty flowers, expansive views, and wildlife habitat are awesome reasons for the existence of a WSA but striking down the technical validity of the bill or providing a legislator with an economic reason to vote against the party line is the reason we need to show up and testify. Do your research before you go, it’s ok to be a passionate defender of wild spaces, but be a passionate and educated defender to make the most of your time in the spotlight.

As it stands now, HR 9 passed the House on a party line vote and goes before the Senate soon. It looks like I have another trip to Helena in my future! It’s funny, I should be demoralized that our legislators crassly ignored our efforts but I’m not. If it takes years to educate both our fellow citizens and our legislators about the importance of public land access so be it- I’m in this fight for the long haul.