Photo of Cowboy Heaven by Christian Sawicki/Wild Montana
This piece was adapted from an article originally written by Wild Montana Deputy Director John Todd.
The last time Wilderness was designated in Montana was in 2014. That was when Congress passed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. It happened because a group of Montanans, united under the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, spent years collaborating on a proposal that conservation, hunting, ranching, outfitting, and many other interests could rally behind. Without that sort of involvement and backing from a range of interest groups, Montana’s Congressional delegation would never have considered supporting the proposal as legislation, leaving crucial habitat for grizzly bears, wolverines, elk, and host of other imperiled species on the Rocky Mountain Front unprotected to this day.
The same spirit underlies the Gallatin Forest Partnership. In this collaborative group, we work in partnership with fellow Montanans who also have a stake in southwest Montana’s public lands – as conservationists, ranchers, horse packers, timber mill operators, mountain bikers, motorized users, small business owners, and more.
We work in these coalitions because we believe that our best – and sometimes only – chance of protecting large landscapes depends on joining in collaboration with those who have different interests than our own. Only then can we achieve the kind of robust public support that makes our conservation proposals viable for success.
As poll after poll has shown, the proposals that emerge from these collaboratives enjoy an enormous amount of support. Colorado College’s 2023 State of the Rockies poll showed 77% of Montanans support the Gallatin Forest Partnership agreement. The 2022 University of Montana public lands survey showed similar support for other collaborative conservation efforts like the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act and Lincoln Prosperity Proposal.
These proposals will result in conservation gains that will help mitigate the climate crisis and help native fish, wildlife, and plants endure. They will keep large landscapes intact, securing crucial wildlife habitat and corridors in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, at the southern end of the Crown of the Continent, and along the Continental Divide. They will keep large landscapes connected, providing imperiled plants and wildlife room to move in response to the warming climate. And they will keep headwaters and streams running cold, clean, and connected, thereby providing life-saving thermal refuge for fish during extreme heat events, like the ones we’ve seen in recent years.
The GFP agreement has already provided some of these benefits by playing a significant role in the Forest Service’s revision of the Custer Gallatin National Forest plan, completed last year. The popularity of the agreement demonstrated to the Forest Service that there was more than enough support for Wilderness in the Gallatin Range, as the GFP proposed. The final Custer Gallatin plan recommends 92,500 acres of Wilderness between Yellowstone National Park and Hyalite Lake, giving this acreage as much protection as it can possibly receive in a Forest plan. (The Forest Service can only recommend Wilderness, and only Congress can designate it.)
The new Custer Gallatin plan marks the first time the Forest Service has ever recommended Wilderness in the Gallatins. Does the plan recommend as much acreage as the GFP wanted? No. The GFP proposal calls for a little more than 100,000 acres of Wilderness in the Gallatins. But without a doubt, the 92,500 acres the Forest Service did recommend is far, far greater than what the agency would have recommended had the GFP not submitted a proposal with such broad public support.
Now it’s up to Congress to designate Wilderness here. The GFP proposal offers a proven and popular blueprint for doing so.
The necessity of reasonable compromise
When Sens. Mike Manfield and Lee Metcalf were negotiating passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the granddaddy of all conservation bills, they both agreed to allow new mineral claims to be staked in designated Wilderness areas for 20 years following passage of the bill. Anything less than a willingness to compromise would have doomed the Wilderness Act from the get-go, as it would have most likely doomed every Wilderness bill in Montana to follow, including the 1983 bill that designated the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
For that bill to advance, an area called Cowboy Heaven, on the western flank of the Spanish Peaks, was left out of the newly designated wilderness. (Thirty years later, we incorporated Cowboy Heaven in the GFP proposal as proposed Wilderness. Thanks again to the popularity of the proposal, the Forest Service has recommended Cowboy Heaven as an addition to the Lee Metcalf in its Custer Gallatin Forest plan.)
In addition to expanding the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act included a unique designation called conservation management areas, which essentially keeps places with that designation exactly as they were when the bill was signed. That means no development, no permanent roadbuilding, and no possibility of additional fragmentation of wildlife habitat.
In all of these legislative efforts, reasonable compromise resulted in big gains for conservation.
Wilderness Study Areas
Congress created Montana’s Forest Service-managed WSAs in the 1970s to protect wilderness character in areas where it existed. In the 1980s, it gave the Bureau of Land Management the power to create them as well, and the agency used it to create the BLM-managed WSAs Montana has today. Only Congress can change those boundaries now. To many people, WSAs aren’t simply controversial places on maps. Instead, they hold our favorite trails, secret camping spots and fishing holes, and some of the best places to experience big game in Montana. Today, we rely on them for our community drinking water, after-work trail runs, and outdoor recreation economy.
Neither the Forest Service nor the BLM has ever managed all 44 of Montana’s WSAs as “defacto Wilderness,” subject to the same regulations as wilderness areas. In some WSAs, agencies have allowed mountain biking and snowmobiling and kept roads and two tracks open to a variety of uses. Other WSAs, or at least parts of them, are still as wild, or even wilder, than most national parks and should be designated Wilderness.
Given the different management histories of the WSAs and the range of conditions that exist on the ground today as a result of that management, successful conservation initiatives require a community-driven, landscape-by-landscape approach to protecting WSAs.
That’s certainly the goal for the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn WSA in the Gallatin Range. The GFP proposal would designate a little more than 100,000 acres of this 155,00-acre WSA as Wilderness. It would designate the remaining 52,000 acres under a wildlife management and watershed protection designation that would still conserve critical habitat and watershed health. It would not allow any new roads, and would almost entirely freeze the recreational footprint as it is today, allowing mountain biking and motorized use to continue in areas that have been open to those uses for decades.
The fact is, we live and work in much more polarizing times than our conservation predecessors did, and that comes with its own unique set of political challenges that make conservation designations difficult. But poll after poll shows conservation is still a bipartisan value in Montana. That means, if we are willing to do the hard work and partner with people whose values and interests don’t mirror our own, we can still unite Montanans around proposals that result in big wins for wild places and the wildlife that depend on them, proposals that garner the sort of popular support that make them successful.
The Gallatin Range has been a shared hunting and gathering ground for the Shoshone, Blackfoot, and other indigenous peoples for thousands of years. We acknowledge these Tribes’ roles as ancestral stewards as well as their deep spiritual and cultural ties to this landscape.