The view looking west of the Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau.(Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/RION SANDERS)
A coalition of 47 environmental organizations called on U.S. senators Monday to remove public lands riders from a defense bill, criticizing what they described as a "kitchen-sink" approach to conservation.
Several public lands proposals in several states including Montana have been attached to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015.
The House approved the bill Wednesday. The Senate is expected to vote later this week.
Greenpeace, WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project and a handful of Montana-based groups sent a letter to senators Monday urging them to remove the natural resources related provisions from the defense act.
Calling the public lands package a "stealth" provision driven by provincial political considerations, the groups say the bills will result in logging, mining and grazing in exchange for modest wilderness protections.
"I don't know what's going to happen with the defense bill, but if nothing else the public is becoming more aware what's in the bill is bad news," said George Nickas, executive director of Missoula-based Wilderness Watch.
Other conservation groups are standing by the public lands package in the defense bill, despite misgivings about individual provisions, arguing it will result in protections for national treasures such as the Rocky Mountain Front.
"Groups are free to draw their own conclusion, and I agree that there are problematic measures included," said Bozeman-based Peter Aengst, senior regional director for the Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies region. "But overall we are supporting the package as it will secure significant conservation gains, including the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act that diverse Montanans have created and supported over many years."
A provision attached to the defense bill would protect 275,000 acres of public land along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, 67,000 acres as wilderness. If approved, it would be the first wilderness approved in the state in 30 years.
"We oppose destructive provisions such as the Resolution Copper bill, and wish it were not in the package," Aengst added. "But I don't expect select bills will be taken out at this stage."
One provision attached to the defense bill calls for trading 2,400 acres of national forest land in Arizona to Resolution Copper, a foreign-controlled mining company. The groups opposing the public lands riders cite it as one example of natural resources related bills that should be stripped from the defense legislation.
Other bills mentioned in the letter sent to senators are:
• The Sealaska Land Entitlement Finalization, which would give 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to Sealaska, which the conservation groups say will likely lead to logging of old-growth forest.
• The Rocky Mountain Front Conservation and Management Area and Wilderness in Montana, which would release wilderness study area protections in southeast Montana hundreds of miles from the land along the Rocky Mountain Front that would be protected. It also calls for an oil assessment of WSA land in northeast Montana.
• And automatic renewal of grazing permits on public lands.
Some of the bills, such as a measure that would protect the North Fork of the Flathead River from mining, would garner broad public support, Nickas said.
"If they were standalone legislation, we would support them, but there's a whole slew of them in there that are bad, and that's why they just need to pull the package," he said.
The groups say the public lands riders would result in a net loss of wild land and wildlife protections and also undermine environmental and public lands laws, such as the National Environmental Policy and Wilderness acts.
Montana groups calling on senators to remove the provisions are the Missoula-based groups WildWest Institute and Wilderness Watch, Conservation Congress in Livingston, Kalispell-based groups Swan View Coalition and Montana Ecosystems Defense Council, Montana Environmental Information Center and Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Helena, Big Wild Advocates and Big Wild Adventures in Emigrant, Friends of the Bitterroot in Hamilton and Friends of the Wild Swan in Swan Lake.
The Wilderness Society's Aengst pointed out that dozens of conservation organizations, individuals, businesses and civic groups, sportsmen's organizations, outfitters and former public lands and wildlife managers endorsed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.
Nickas said the bill is pitting public lands advocates against one another.
The price to protect some areas, such as the North Fork of the Flathead, should not be logging old-growth forest in Alaska or mining in Arizona, he said.
"That's the price they are extracting in order to get these handful of bills that different sorts of provincial conservation organizations want, and it's a bad deal," Nickas said.
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Karl Puckett at 406-791-1471, 1-800-438-6600 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GFTrib_KPuckett.