The battle for new wilderness: A closer look at Montana's Sleeping Giant


Editor's note: This is the last story in a group of pieces produced for High Country News by students in the University of Montana's online news class. They ran over a period of two weeks in the Range blog. You can see a list of all the stories here.

By Daniel Viehland

On Nov. 10, Secretary Interior Ken Salazar highlighted 18 backcountry areas in nine states that he said deserved protection as national conservation or wilderness areas. Yet even though some of those areas are already managed as de facto wilderness, the proposal has been controversial. A closer look at one of them, the Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study Area in Montana, shows the back-and-forth involved in creating wilderness.

"We have heard from local communities, elected officials, and others that Montana’s Sleeping Giant, Nevada’s Pine Forest Range and New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte are among the many places that deserve protection by Congress for future generations," Salazar said in his announcement.

The Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study area, north of Helena, Mont., consists of about 11,000 acres that range from about 3,600 to 6,800 feet in elevation. About half of the area is forested and home to a variety of species, from elk to golden eagles. Its centerpiece is the Sleeping Giant formation itself, a local landmark visible from Helena. If the Sleeping Giant receives full wilderness status, it would add to the 3,443,000 acres of already existing wilderness in Montana.

Sleeping Giant’s inclusion on the federal protection list wasn’t exactly unexpected. According to Sherri Lionberger, a supervisory land use specialist at the Butte office of the Bureau of Land Management,  Interior wanted only those proposals with broad public and community support. "Everyone we had gotten comments from had been supportive of this. It's kind of a local icon there," she said.

There was also significant support from the local planning board and Lewis and Clark County commissioners, in particular.

"One of the key components is that the surrounding landowners all seem to be in favor of it," said Derek Brown, chairman of the Lewis and Clark County Commission. "It is a special thing to the people of Helena. It's our backdrop to the north."

And Sleeping Giant is basically untouched anyway. It’s an official "wilderness study area," with heavy restrictions in place against development, so very little will change with a full wilderness designation, although the designation does make it harder for any protections to be reversed.

The Montana Wilderness Association was a major driver in the effort. Jake Troyer, outreach coordinator of the association, said there are several reasons the association is focusing on Sleeping Giant besides its natural beauty. Troyer said the area is also culturally noteworthy because it contains historic paths for both Montana's Native American tribes and the Lewis and Clark expedition with the Corps of Discovery.

"The third value is wildlife and ecological values," Troyer said. "This area is a great habitat for elk and deer, wolverines, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears have passed through, as well as mountain lions." "It's a cornucopia of wildlife and botany we feel is critical for protection."

Tim Crawford, manager of the Helena-based Gates of the Mountains Boat Tours, agrees that Sleeping Giant is a special area with a ruggedness that makes it worthy of wilderness designation. He notes that it’s an undesignated wildlife corridor, part of a nearly unbroken chain of federally managed lands running from the Canadian border to the Crazy Mountains near Livingston. This stretch of land includes Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, Glacier National Park in the U.S., and two huge wilderness areas, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Scapegoat Wilderness. The wilderness areas alone consist of 1,250,000 acres of protected land.  "You can basically go from Flathead Lake and go all the way to Big Timber crossing very little private land," Crawford said.

But Crawford is among the critics of the proposal, precisely because of his love for Sleeping Giant. It’s ironic, he says, but designating a wilderness often brings more people to the area. "A lot of time it's better just left alone. Very few people go in there (now), other than the people who climb the Sleeping Giant formation itself. All you have to do is put it on a map and it draws more people. It's like designating a fishing access," he says.

Crawford, who helps guide boat tours through the Missouri River bordering Sleeping Giant, said he would prefer the area remain autonomous and remote, to allow what he calls "the great experiment" of unhindered Darwinian evolution to take place.

Part of the reason Crawford isn't wholly supportive of a wilderness designation is he sees very little prospect for future development of the area, noting that, as he understands it, the land holds little to no mineral resources, oil or natural gas, except for a small slate deposit just outside the wilderness study area boundary.

Brad Rixford, a supervisory outdoor recreation planner for the BLM, agreed that sometimes a new wilderness designation can spark greater interest in an area. But he also points out that the burst of  attention usually dies down in around three years. "Given the fact that this area is quite remote and not easily accessible, (this) would keep numbers down in the future," Rixford said. "I don't think the public would love this to death in a way where wilderness values would be decreased.

Rixford did concur with Crawford's assessment of the area’s commercial value. According to him, a survey by the Montana Bureau of Mining regarding valuable mineral deposits and one by the U.S. Geological Survey concerning oil and natural gas "determined that the economic or commercial value … was low," with the exception of the slate deposit, which is estimated to have 50 years of mining potential. The deposit, which was being mined at the time of the surveys but has since been abandoned, is primarily located in a strip of land left out of the wilderness study area because it contains a power line and a maintenance road, making it ineligible for inclusion. Rixford said the mineral, oil and natural gas rights were owned by a private individual, a railroad company and the state of Montana. If a wilderness designation becomes a reality, the government planned to either swap its mineral rights or buy them, on a voluntary basis, for fair market value. While it is unclear what will happen with the Sleeping Giant, mineral prospecting is allowed in some wilderness areas, as long as it is conducted "in a manner compatible with the preservation of the wilderness environment." However, other wilderness areas have been withdrawn from mineral extraction.

Despite the lack of business potential, David Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, opposes the wilderness area. While he hasn't studied the proposal in detail, Galt says his group opposes any and all new wilderness designations.

"We believe that 25 percent of the federal lands are off limits to oil and gas development today, and we don't support any more. We want the federal lands that are under multiple use to stay under multiple use, including oil and gas," Galt said. "I don't support any additional wilderness, not another inch in the state of Montana."

Judging by history, Galt may get his wish. Wilderness proposals in Montana have traditionally faced an uphill battle. Although there have been new wilderness designations in other states, Montana hasn't seen a new one in 27 years.

Len Broberg, director of the environmental studies program at the University of Montana, said that at least two bills have been introduced since the late 1980s. In 1988, a bill to establish millions of acres of new wilderness in Montana, sponsored by Montana U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan, the only wilderness bill ever subjected to a presidential veto. Another bill passed the House but failed in the Senate in 1996.

Now there are two bills pending in the Senate that would establish new wilderness in Montana. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., recently introduced the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would, according to Baucus' office, add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced his Forest, Jobs and Recreation Act in 2009, but it’s had difficulty making any progress since then.

Broberg attributed Tester's bill’s troubles to both its scope and to political maneuvering. Tester’s bill would mandate timber harvesting on some national forest land while creating wilderness areas near those same forests. "The Forest, Jobs and Recreation Act is a bit of a different animal. Looking nationally at wilderness, it is the first time it would be paired with (timber) cuts or treatments in National Forest land," Broberg said. In addition, Broberg cited the 2012 Senate race in Montana, which pits Tester against Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg. "It is very difficult politically right now for reasons that include perhaps more to do with politics and less to do with wilderness," he said.

Broberg gives the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act better chances. Broberg said Baucus’ bill is part of a longer and deeper effort than Tester’s, which he characterized as a combination of three bills. In addition, Baucus' bill "doesn't mandate resources use or development which will make it less controversial nationally."

Rehberg has been working on his own bills, largely aimed at reducing the federal government’s control of Montana's wild areas, though neither directly affects Sleeping Giant. On March 1, Rehberg introduced the Montana Land Sovereignty Act, which, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, "prohibits any further extension or establishment of national parks and monuments in Montana, except by express authorization of Congress." Rehberg is also a cosponsor of the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, which, again according to the Congressional Research Service, would release lands that "have not been designated as wilderness and identified by BLM as not suitable for designation as wilderness from further study for wilderness designation" from a rule requiring wilderness study areas to be "in a manner that does not impair suitability for preservation as wilderness."

Both Rehberg and Baucus have so far refused to commit themselves on the Sleeping Giant proposal.

Jed Link, Rehberg’s spokesman, said, "Denny believes that while there are places in Montana that may be appropriate for new wilderness designation, those decisions ought to be built on consensus. That’s why Denny will continue to seek input from the affected communities in order to determine what impact this legislation may have on job creation and the economy."

A statement from Baucus' office read, "Max is pleased to see BLM is gathering important input from locals, but Max doesn’t take recommendations from the Obama Administration about land in Montana. He speaks directly to Montanans and he’s still working to gather more input from them before making any decisions."

Tester's office did not respond to inquiries for this article.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Image of the Sleeping Giant courtesy Flickr user Nick Shontz.

Full disclosure: Daniel Viehland wrote this article addressing the political issues associated with wilderness designation while participating in the University of Montana's online news class. After graduating in December 2011, he took a job in February with the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

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