The Pitfalls of Collaboration Strike Again

Oh the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the cluster of collaborators who supposedly spent 15 years sitting around “kitchen tables” hammering out the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act now introduced by Senator Jon Tester.

And why are they so upset? Well, because Montana’s other U.S. Senator, Steve Daines, has decided the bill isn’t going anywhere unless hundreds of thousands of already-designated Wilderness Study Areas are released to development.

They say “the once burnt child fears the fire,” but apparently that doesn’t apply to the adults who continue to believe if they cut some kind of local deal chopping up the remaining wilderness-quality public lands among their select interests that it will remain untouched and simply magically pass into law unchanged.

Were the consequences not so dire, it would be laughable for anyone familiar with the lawmaking process to ever entertain such a naive notion. Unfortunately, some of the very same players that now laud their deal have already experienced the exact same consequences at least twice before.

Not coincidentally, Senator Tester was integral to both of those measures. His Forest Jobs and Recreation Act never made it out of the Senate because the kitchen table collaborators decided to mandate certain levels of logging on national forests as their sizable piece of the public lands resources pie.

But since these lands also belong to all Americans, not just the handful in Montana, the idea of mandating logging levels in law regardless of the quickly changing climate impacts on our national forests shouldn’t have and didn’t find support at the national level.

The Rocky Mountain Front bill did the same thing — only it opened 208,000 acres of roadless lands to logging, road-building and guaranteed grazing with no environmental analysis in law. As bad as that was for the pitiful 70,000 acres of new wilderness tack-ons, it wouldn’t have passed without sacrificing another 29,000 acres of Montana’s existing wilderness study areas to oil and gas exploration and development. And jeez, here they thought they had a deal.

Comes now Tester’s latest bill and apparently the collaborators haven’t learned a thing about how the legislative process actually works. No one, repeat, no one gets to walk into Congress with a “deal” cut by some locals and tell 100 Senators and 435 Representatives that they don’t get to put a glove on it … or kill it outright. That’s simply not how it works — nor should it.

The latest protestations that Daines’ move to open hundreds of thousands more acres of Wilderness Study Areas to development is a “top down” action to hold Tester’s bill “hostage” is utter nonsense. Daines got elected, just like Tester, and has every right to amend the legislation or put in his own bill to remove wilderness study areas. So does every other member of Congress. Given that the measure again contains mandated logging levels, opposition is inevitable.

When it comes to grandstanding on what percentage of Montanans supposedly support Tester’s deal, even if every single Montanan vowed support it would come to a very pitiful three-tenths of one percent of the American population — and the other 99.7 percent have every bit as much right to determine the future of these precious public lands as do the handful of Montana collaborators.

Since they’re not making any more wilderness-quality land, one might think the collaborators would have figured out you don’t walk in to Congress with your bottom line deal and expect it to pass untouched. But apparently in this case, the “once burnt children” have yet to realize they’re about to get burned again.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.