Commentary - May 16th, 2014
1:03 pm
Fri May 16, 2014

Pragmatic Conservation Bills

Last fall, my wife and I quit working.  We turned off our cell phones and closed our laptops.  We assembled a stack of good books, a pile of knitting, and packed every piece of wool clothing in the house.  Then, we skipped town. 

We pulled off the interstate at the first opportunity and cruised along the Blackfoot River, running low, cold, and sluggish between its banks in mid-November. We climbed over the Continental Divide and descended onto the high plains that stretch eastward for an eternity. 

We make the trip every year, but every year it’s like the first time.  We turn north onto highway 287 and gather in that first full view of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, a 100-mile bulwark of ragged-edged ridges rising from the plains and reaching all the way to Glacier National Park.

On a clear day, the view is so full, so completely uninterrupted, that it’s hard to keep our eyes on the road as we pass through Augusta and Choteau.  But eventually, we settle into a one-room cabin on the Teton River. Then, we wake up before dawn and stay out after dark every day for a week hoping to find whitetail deer in the river bottom, muleys on a mountain ridge or elk in the timber. Some years, we track them down and some years we don’t, but we never leave the Front without finding peace of mind.

In this age of increasing screen time, these days spent on quiet trails in wild country seem more important to more people every single year.  So important in fact, that Montanans support protecting these places through legislative action in large numbers.  According to polls conducted jointly by Democratic and Republican polling firms, 72% of Montanans support protecting the Front by passing the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a pragmatic conservation bill with bipartisan support.  That’s more than two out of three Montanans.  

Any politician would give their little finger to be that popular.  But unfortunately, pragmatism and popular support have not led to legislative success in Montana, or any other state, for a very long time.  Recently, the Center for Western Priorities released a report detailing this staggering failure of Congress to take action on common-sense conservation bills. 

The report, titled “Languishing Lands”, is a sobering read.  It details the legislative history of 10 high-profile conservation bills that have stalled in Congress, sometimes for decades. These bills have strong grassroots support and many of them benefit from the backing of both Democrats and Republicans. Together, these bills have been introduced into the House or Senate a combined 52 times over the last 30 years, and yet not a single bill has become law.

Montanans are familiar with this problem.  We currently have three public lands bills in Congress including the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.  These two bills, along with the Heritage Act, all have strong bipartisan support in Montana and yet all have suffered through multiple congressional sessions.  Combined, their time in Congress represents twelve years of astonishing inaction.

As we consider this decade-plus of dysfunction, it would be easy to throw up our hands.  But we shouldn’t.  Our public lands are simply too important.  So, here’s my suggestion.

There are 435 people in the House and 100 people in the Senate and Montanans have unique influence over three of them: Congressman Daines, Senator Tester, and Senator Walsh. Tester and Walsh support all three Montana-made bills but Congressman Daines supports just one. His leadership has given the North Fork Watershed Protect Act a big boost and we have every reason to expect the same support for the Forest Jobs bill and the Heritage Act as well.

Each Montana-made bill took years to build from the ground up.  Each bill has the support from a clear majority of Montanans and each one seeks to protect access to lands that belong to each of us equally.

Next November, like every November, my wife and I will head up to the Front for a week. Whether or not we pull the trigger, we’ll return home having recovered the peace of mind that can only be found by walking among the limestone reefs of the Front.  But, I wonder, will Montanans have the peace of mind that they deserve?  The peace of mind that can only come when we know, for sure, that the Front will look this beautiful, sound this quiet, and feel this big for our children and grandchildren.

Congressman Daines is in a good position to answer that question, and he should.  Our public lands have languished in the halls of Congress for far too long and Montanans are tired of waiting.