Montana wilderness bill finds reluctant support, presents bittersweet solution

Montana State Roundup

Published July 1, 1992  | July 1992 issue

The Montana Wilderness bill currently in congressional hearings is creating controversy and uncommon alliances among timber and conservation interests.

The bill's provision to release 4.5 million acres of Montana's 10 national forests to the National Forest Service management plans, which makes the land available for potential development, has drawn the opposition of state and national conservation groups.

"There's not a single conservation group in Montana that supports this part of the bill," says Bart Koehler, associate program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an umbrella for conservation interests. "But we have to take the bitter with the sweet," he adds.

The "sweet" involves another provision of the bill that has the support of timber interests and conservation groups alike, whereby 1.2 million acres of additional wilderness land are designated and more than 215,000 acres of wilderness study areas are created.

In the process, railroad-owned land will be swapped with other National Forest land. Known as checkerboards, the land parcels are owned by Burlington Northern (BN) Railroad's subsidiary Plum Creek Timber Co.

The bill calls for Plum Creek to swap nearly 46,000 acres in the Gallatin Forest, which stretches north from Yellowstone National Park, for about 22,000 acres of public roadless National Forest tracts elsewhere in the region, and receive $3.4 million in the bargain.

"Of all the lands adjacent to Yellowstone, these are by anybody's opinion the most significant, unprotected wild lands. These are key pieces of the whole Yellowstone ecosystem," Koehler says.

Passage of the bill this year, with the land swap provisions included, becomes particularly important, Koehler says, because Plum Creek is in the process of selling the holdings in question to an Oregon-based timber company. The owner of that company has said publicly that he will honor Plum Creek's commitment to the land swap only until the end of the year. "It's now or never for the land exchange," Koehler adds.

Plum Creek's vice president James Kraft also spoke to the importance of the land swap to the local economy at a congressional hearing in June. "A key to the future viability of the jobs at the Belgrade sawmill under any ownership is completion of the two land exchanges which are included in this legislation," Kraft says.

But also at issue is whether Plum Creek or its successors will handle the land received in the swap in an environmentally responsible way. In answer to these concerns, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who drafted the bill with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), has asked Congress to add restrictions on clearcutting in sensitive areas as a precondition of any final exchange. Koehler and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition concur.

The land swap in question involves only a small portion of Plum Creek's holdings. The company currently owns 170,000 acres of checkerboard land within the boundaries of the Gallatin National Forest.

Checkerboard lands originally were given by the U.S. government to the railroads in the mid-1800s as a perk for building rail lines and to encourage settlement. Generally railroads claimed every other parcel of land for 10 miles on either side of the tracks, but given Montana's vastness and uneven terrain, the state's tracts were doubled.

Not all checkerboards were purchased from the railroads by homesteaders and are located within what today are designated wilderness areas or national forest lands.

The wilderness bill passed the Senate in spring and will likely be voted on by the House of Representatives in fall.

Kathy Cobb