Will Daines Face Conservative Backlash for Montana Lands Compromise?


U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT) speaks during his 2012 U.S. House campaign (photo courtesy of the Washington Examiner).

Republican U.S. Rep. and Montana’s U.S. Senator-elect Steve Daines surprised many last week when he joined with Montana Democratic U.S. Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh to support major land policy legislation attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The “lands rider,” as it is called would have policy implications for the entire Western United States. Specific to Montana, it includes language affecting the controversial Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would designate 67,000 of acres of new wilderness and another 208,000 acres as a “conservation management area.” The rider also includes the release of 14,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in Southeastern Montana, the transfer of mineral rights for 5,000 acres of coal deposits to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and prohibitions on oil and gas grilling on 400,000 acres of the North Fork Watershed.

It is the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, however, that is getting Daines criticism from many in his conservative base. Critics of the act have long criticized the measure as “a federal land grab,” and note that Daines — who won a landslide Senate victory just last month — campaigned against federal overreach in Montana. There has also been criticism over passing the legislation as part of a larger “must pass” bill without ample opportunity for public comment.

Aaron Flint, host of the “Voices of Montana” talk show on the Northern Broadcasting System called the lands deal a “last minute full front retreat” in an on-air monologue last week.

“And now a Republican gets elected to the Senate for the first time in 100 years, and what happens? We’re getting wilderness shoved down the throats of the people of Montana,” Flint said.

Many callers into the “Voices of Montana” in recent days have opposed the lands deal, and some have used terms like “betrayal,” “turncoat,” and “sell-out” in reference to Daines.

In an email and follow-up phone conversation with Media Trackers, Daines’ spokeswoman Alee Lockman sought to mollify conservative critics by claiming that the lands rider would actually reduce federal control of lands, pointing to the “unprecedented” release of wilderness study areas, the transfer of coal to the Northern Cheyenne, and a provision extending BLM grazing permits from 10-20 years.

“The package of bills reduces federal control of lands and resources in Montana and provides farmers, ranchers, energy producers and tribes with great ability to use Montana lands for grazing, irrigation, and energy production,” Lockman wrote. “Of great importance – for the first time in nearly twenty years, Wilderness Study Areas in Montana will be released. The package requires the release of the Buffalo Creek and Zook Creek WSAs – more than 14,000 acres – and the new assessment of oil and gas potential in the Bridge Coulee and Musselshell Breaks WSAs. The release of WSAs in Montana is nearly unprecedented.”

When asked about Daines’ opinion on the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, Lockman said it was important to realize that important changes to the bill were made and that “it’s not the same bill that Max Baucus introduced,” noting that the overall lands package now included management of BLM land for energy development, along with a hydro power bill, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Lands Act.

“His  focus really has been to meet with people as stakeholders, to address a lot of concerns that folks were having, and also to improve the bill and find some common ground on it,” She stated.

While there has been some criticism of both Daines and the lands package itself from conservatives, many center-right organizations and interest groups have remained quiet on the overall package.

Media Trackers reached out to a number of center and center-right interest groups for comment on the lands deal, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association and, for a more regional perspective on the legislation, the Sutherland Coalition for Self Government in the West in Salt Lake City. Most groups either did not respond, or told us that they had no comment to offer at this time.

Chuck Denowh, spokesman for Count on Coal Montana (COCM), told Media Trackers that his organization could only comment on the legislation directly as it pertained to the coal industry. On that front, he said COCM was pleased that the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Lands Act was included in the compromise, as it would allow the tribe to develop its coal resources.

One of the more conservative organizations that has taken a strong stance is Citizens for Balanced Use (CBU). CBU, which advocates for “multiple use” of public lands, has been highly critical of the compromise calling it a “political stunt,” and stating that the new wilderness areas will hurt the economies of nearby communities. CBU, however, took direct aim at Sen. Tester rather than Daines.

“CBU is very disappointed in the designation of additional wilderness in Montana being inserted into a must pass defense spending bill during a lame duck session of congress,” CBU spokesman and Republican State Rep. Kerry White of Bozeman wrote in an e-mail to Media Trackers. “In a recent guest editorial written by Senator Tester in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle stated he would not stand for ‘political stunts.’ Senator Tester seems to say one thing and do another.”

“This new wilderness designation will result in more boarded up buildings and closed businesses in the rural community of Choteau. A sad tribute to now China resident Max Baucus, the original author of this bill,” White continued, referring directly to the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

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