Two Steps Forward…

A major bill passed by Congress last week included good news for conservation in the West—and some serious setbacks.

December 22, 2014

Gene Sentz and Steve Charter have been fighting to protect the land around their Montana homes for the last four decades. But when news broke late on Friday that President Obama had signed a $585 billion defense spending bill—which included 70 public lands bills—their reactions couldn't have been more different. Sentz was elated. Charter was disgusted.

Overall, those lands "riders" (as bills are called when Congress inserts them into unrelated measures to get them passed) were a “mixed bag,” says Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst for NRDC (which publishes Earthwire).

Yes, 120,000 acres will be added to National Park Service, 245,000 new acres will be designated as wilderness, and industrial development will be blocked on 430,000 acres on Glacier National Park’s western boundary. But there were some pretty big blows to conservation, too. Those include expedited fracking on public lands, a ban on proposing Endangered Species Act protections for the sage grouse (because such listings could hurt the energy industry), and a controversial land trade in Arizona that paves the way for a copper company to build a mine on national forestland.

Photo: Sam BeebeLarge swaths of land on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana earned wilderness designation under the new defense bill.

For Sentz, who lives in Choteau, the lands riders were a personal win. The town is located along the Rocky Mountain Front in northwestern Montana, where massive limestone cliffs jut out of plains. A bastion of biodiversity, the area is home to some of the country’s largest herds of bighorn sheep and elk; it’s also one of the few places where grizzly bears are making a comeback on the prairies they once dominated. And thanks in large part to Sentz, a former Forest Service employee and outfitter—along with a motley crew of ranchers, guides, conservation organizations, mountain bikers, and sportsmen—a big chunk of that landscape will now be permanently protected. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, part of the public lands package, affects nearly 270,000 acres, 67,000 of which will be the first to be designated as wilderness in Montana in three decades.

“We’ve worked on this for so many years, and now we’ve suddenly got it,” says Sentz, noting that the push to pass public lands provisions was completely unexpected during the lame duck session. “It’s quite an accomplishment. But we saw a lot of bad stuff in that package, which made the celebration kind of bittersweet.”

The bitterness came as a result of Congress’s horse-trading. For instance, nearly 30,000 acres that are being used for wilderness studies in the state’s central and southeastern regions are now open to oil and gas development.

Still, legislators said these kinds of last-minute concessions were critical to passing public lands bills—something the outgoing Congress has failed dismally at, protecting just one area since 2009. “We could have gone out, had public hearings on this, and talked about it, and the window of opportunity would have been over with by the time we got done,” Senator John Tester told the Missoula Independent. While Montana’s congressional delegation called the package “historic” and lauded the bipartisan effort, environmental groups and citizens don’t agree.

Steve Charter is one of those people. He’s irate over a public lands swap in eastern Montana that was driven by the desire to tap fossil fuels.

Charter ranches in the Bull Mountains, a sweeping area with high mesas, spring-fed coulees—and huge quantities of coal. Under one of the new bills, 5,000 acres of coal reserves that were wrongly stripped from the Northern Cheyenne more than a century ago will be returned to the tribe. In exchange, Great Northern Properties, which had held the rights to the Cheyenne’s coal, will gain access to 112 million tons of federally owned coal in the East Fork area and Bull Mountains—right under Charter’s toes.

“This whole thing stinks, the way it was done,” says Charter. The tribe deserved to have its rights returned, he says, but “You know who really benefited? Great Northern Properties.”

Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, says the company is getting a “sweetheart deal.” “In all reality, Great Northern was never going to be able to develop on the reservation—there’s no infrastructure,” she says. Infrastructure does exist, however, in the Bull Mountains, where coal mining has already raised concerns about causing water contamination.

Hedges takes umbrage with the way the larger public lands package in general came about. “It was secretive, cynical, and offensive,” she says.

Martin Nie, a natural resources policy expert at the University of Montana, agrees. “It’s disappointing to see public lands issues resolved like this,” he says. “In my opinion, many of these deserve a better process, a more thorough one with public input.”

As for the sacrifices that might have to be made in Congress to pass future designations, “all bets are off,” says Nie. “We’ve already seen one of the most polarized, most dysfunctional congresses in 100 years, and I highly doubt that’s going to change.”

We’ll find out next month.

In the meantime, while Sentz revels in a hard-fought victory, Charter is taking some solace in one bright spot: While he can’t prevent underground mining to get at the coal seams beneath the public acres he leases, Charter retains surface rights, so he can refuse to allow strip mining. So there’s that.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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