Mont. Republican tests waters on conservation

Posted: Apr 5, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, Greenwire
Rocky Mountain Front

Montana's lone congressman, Republican Steve Daines, is showing early signs that he may break from his predecessor, Republican Denny Rehberg, on key conservation bills in the Treasure State.

While Daines, a Bozeman businessman, is yet to take positions on bills to designate new wilderness, recreation and logging areas in his state, he last week announced he would introduce a bill to protect an area west of Glacier National Park from mineral development, a major legislative priority for the state's two Democratic senators.

And today, Daines is hosting a meeting in Choteau, Mont., to gather constituents' input on a bill by Sen. Max Baucus to add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness in Montana and establish a 208,000-acre conservation area on the Rocky Mountain Front.

"I know that Montana's natural resources are not only a vital asset to our state's economy -- they are an important part of our state's way of life," said Daines, a fifth-generation Montanan, in a statement. "As I work to best serve the people of Montana, it's important to me that I hear first-hand about their ideas and concerns regarding the management of our state's lands so that we can best utilize Montana resources to create jobs and grow our economy, while also ensuring that our state's mountains and rivers are protected for future generations."

Today's meeting comes one year after Rehberg, who retired after losing a Senate race in November to Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), held a public meeting of his own to discuss Baucus' Rocky Mountain Front proposal. At the time, Rehberg said he had concerns that the bill would harm forest users and restrict energy development.

Rehberg never backed the Baucus bill, and he worked to defeat a larger proposal by Tester to designate nearly 700,000 acres of wilderness and mandate more logging on about 100,000 acres in western Montana.

He also never backed the "North Fork Watershed Protection Act," the Baucus and Tester bill that Daines last week pledged to support.

According to Ben Long, a conservationist from Kalispell, Mont., who is senior program director for Resource Media, the North Fork bill marks the first time Montana's entire congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats, had agreed on a public lands bill in at least the past quarter-century. The North Fork bill is supported by major energy companies, cities, counties and chambers of commerce.

"Just three months into office, Daines was clearly trying to step from the shadow of his predecessors who made a tradition of green-baiting and driving partisan wedges," Long wrote this week in an op-ed for High Country News.

Daines' position on conservation and energy issues could prove pivotal if the House and Senate this year attempt to pass public lands packages. Republican leaders in the House have taken a hard stance against wilderness designations and other bills that restrict energy development on public lands and would need to feel considerable pressure from members of their own party to sign off on conservation measures.

But Daines will also feel pressure from his right flank, Long said.

"I don't expect Daines to be an environmentalists' superhero," he wrote, noting Daines' recent appearances at Montana sawmills and his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which Baucus and Tester also support. "I do expect Daines will catch flak for warming up to Democrats and their ideas on conservation, even a little."

While Daines has said little about Tester's and Baucus' signature wilderness bills, his past experience hiking in Montana -- he proposed to his wife on a mountaintop and claims to have hiked more wilderness than any other elected official -- has some conservationists hopeful that he will take a softer stance on land preservation than Rehberg (E&E Daily, Dec. 17, 2012).

"We're encouraged by his commitment to doing what's best for Montana's backcountry," said Trevor Kincaid, executive director at the Center for Western Priorities, noting the impacts of recreation on jobs in Montana.

Michael Jamison, Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said Daines' support of the North Fork bill shows he recognizes conservation in Montana carries bipartisan support, regardless of what the national Republican party line might say.

"It transcends both partisan lines and international borders, and with the support of Montana's entire Congressional delegation, we are confident it will be Glacier National Park's next great success story," Jamison said this weekend in a statement, referring to the North Fork bill.

Daines will continue to feel pressure from conservative groups including Citizens for Balanced Use, a Montana-based group that advocates for multiple use, to oppose wilderness bills including Baucus' "Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act" and Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act."

"We think the front is pretty well secured and protected," said Kerry White, a Republican who led the group before being elected in November to Montana's Legislature. "Wilderness will adversely affect these farmers and ranchers with these grazing permits."

White said he looks forward to speaking with Daines when he is in Bozeman this weekend to see what he heard from constituents about the Baucus bill. He praised Daines for taking time to hear from constituents before taking a position on the measure.

"I'm confident Steve will go out there and listen," White said. "He's trying to make up his own mind, which I fully respect."

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