Celebrating Scapegoat Wilderness

As Montana celebrates the 40th anniversary of one of its most prized places –Scapegoat Wilderness – it is important to look back over the once-contentious history and the long years of struggle that laid the foundation for the protections we enjoy today.

It is important because the Scapegoat’s history is rich with lessons that apply to Montana’s current struggles with proposed wilderness. In fact, two proposals awaiting action in Congress are traveling a road that was paved by supporters of the Scapegoat Wilderness all those years ago.

In 1972, the Scapegoat earned a place in history as the first citizen-designated wilderness in the nation. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act introduced by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act introduced by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., both have their roots in citizen-led proposals.

The names of those who fought for and won the Scapegoat Wilderness are now legend. The attitudes of most naysayers have long since changed, and the new folks – that would be anyone under the age of 40 – who gape at the wonders of the Scapegoat perhaps take it for granted that this place is protected.

But that was not always so. The Scapegoat designation came in response to the pressing threat of timber development in the 1950s. The Forest Service was planning to lay roads in the Lincoln backcountry to facilitate access for logging. When locals learned of these plans, they began working to stop them – and calling on Montana’s congressional delegation to take action too.

Montana’s representatives in Congress didn’t see eye-to-eye back then any more than they do now, but they still managed to agree on one thing – that the Scapegoat deserved federal protection as an official wilderness area. In fact, the biggest quibble was only over how many acres to protect. Sens. Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield, both Democrats, introduced a bill in 1965 that would have covered only 75,000. When Republican Rep. Jim Battin introduced a bill expanding the area to 240,000 acres, both Metcalf and Mansfield dropped their bill and backed Battin’s.

Still, it wasn’t until 1972 that the Scapegoat Wilderness Act was officially approved by Congress. And even then, the victory wasn’t viewed as such by all. The Forest Service, especially, was less than enthusiastic about the change and openly warned that it could set a precedent that would prove disruptive to Forest Service land policy.

The Forest Service needn’t have worried. Montana has gone without any new wilderness designations all these many years.

That’s not for lack of trying, and it’s not for lack of enthusiasm. In fact, a recent statewide poll points to the high value Montanans continue to place on our shared public lands, and wilderness in particular. Its key findings, released in May, found high levels of support for public lands and wilderness across the board. Overall, 85 percent of Montanans agree that wilderness protections are good for Montana, while only 11 percent perceive wilderness as bad for the state.

The poll also found high levels of support for the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (79 percent) and Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (72 percent). The forest jobs act, introduced in July 2009, would add 30,000 acres of wilderness in the Kootenai National Forest, 83,000 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountain wilderness areas, and 554,000 acres of wilderness in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. At the same time, it would set timber harvest thresholds for the Forest Service, and release or designate additional acres for recreation.

Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act could add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It too seeks to balance its wilderness proposal with protections for other interests.

Those who think they know these two proposals and have made up their minds about them – for or against – should go back and give them a second look with fresh eyes. But look first at the Scapegoat Wilderness. Just look at what those long years of struggle won for Montana.

Then look with far-seeing eyes at the opportunities we have before us to protect some of the Treasure State’s most valuable, irreplaceable treasures – its public lands. That, fellow Montanans, is a legacy worth leaving – and one we celebrate this week, with thanks to those who set aside their differences and took action 40 years ago.