Ravalli County residents say commissioners violated open meeting law with anti-wilderness decision

Ravalli County residents say there is significant public interest in the Sapphire-Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area and its protection. (Zack Porter/Montana Wilderness Association)

I and six other residents of Ravalli County submitted a letter Monday (Jan. 29) to the Ravalli County Commission informing the commission that it may not have adhered to Montana’s open meetings laws when it supported federal legislation removing existing protections of Montana’s wilderness study areas.

Sen. Steve Daines referenced this support when he introduced the “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act” (S. 2206). This bill would remove protection of the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas, as well as three other wilderness study areas in the state. The Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs lie within Ravalli County.

At a September 15 meeting held in the middle of the day with only two members of the public present, the Ravalli County Commission voted to support legislation removing wilderness study area protections for the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas. After this meeting, the commission sent a letter to Senator Steve Daines advocating for the removal of wilderness study area status for these areas.

We contend the Ravalli County Commission did not provide the public with sufficient opportunity to comment, as required by the Montana State Constitution and state open meeting laws.

We are therefore asking the commission to rescind its letter to Sen. Daines supporting wilderness study area legislation. We are also asking the commission to schedule a well-publicized public hearing at a convenient time and location that will enable the public to comment on the management of Ravalli County’s wilderness study areas.

  1. 2206 would remove protection from five landscapes in Montana currently managed as wilderness study areas – Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneers, Blue Joint, and Sapphire. In total, these areas amount to nearly 500,000 acres. This bill will receive a hearing on February 7 in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

We are taking this action because we believe that residents of Ravalli County should have a reasonable say about how the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas are managed and that all Montanans should have the opportunity to weigh in on how nearly a half-million acres of our wildest, most pristine public lands are managed.

We too believe it’s time to decide how these areas should be managed for the long haul. Personally, I am one of what I presume to be only a small number of Montanans who has actually hiked, backpacked, and explored in all of the WSAs directly impacted by this legislation (as well as many others). In my view, some clearly deserve full protection as wilderness, while others could be managed in other ways that allowed for example, mountain bike and snowmobile use.

The point is that not all of these lands are the same and management decisions regarding Montana’s public lands must be an open process that involves a diverse group of stakeholders – an approach that has been successfully accomplished elsewhere in the state (such as on the Rocky Mountain Front and the Blackfoot-Clearwater area).

A top-down, one-size-fits-all bill that imposes one side’s solution but leaves everyday Montanans out of the equation, such as Sen. Daines’ bill, is an affront to those who use and cherish these lands.

Doug Lorain, Hamilton

Here is the group’s full letter to the Ravalli County commissioners:

January 29, 2018

The Honorable Greg Chilcott

The Honorable Ray Hawk

The Honorable Chris Hoffman

The Honorable Jeff Burrows

The Honorable Doug Schallenberger

Ravalli County Commission

215 S. Fourth St., Suite A

Hamilton, MT 59840

Dear Commissioners:

We write to call your attention to an important issue related to Montana’s public lands and to request that you take immediate action regarding your position on Ravalli County’s wilderness study areas.

At its September 15 meeting, held at 11 AM on a weekday with only two members of the public

in attendance, the Ravalli County Commission voted to support legislation removing wilderness study area protections for the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas. After this meeting, the commission sent a letter to Senator Steve Daines advocating for the removal of wilderness study area status for these areas.

By making such a decision at a poorly publicized and poorly attended daytime meeting, the Ravalli County Commission did not provide the public with sufficient opportunity to comment, as required by the Montana State Constitution and state open meeting laws.

We are also concerned that the Commissioner’s decision to endorse S. 2206 was made without any consultation of the Ravalli County Collaborative, a group that the Commissioners created to advise the County on natural resource management decisions by providing a forum for thoughtful analysis and careful deliberation. In addition, another long-standing collaborative group with a proven track record of finding common ground for management decisions, the Bitterroot Restoration Committee, was also not informed or consulted.

We therefore request that the Ravalli County Commission immediately rescind its September 15 letter and schedule a well-publicized hearing during a convenient hour to consider public views on the county’s wilderness study areas.

Montana’s Open Meeting and Public Participation Laws Require that the Ravalli County Commission Provide Sufficient Opportunity for Public Input

Montana’s open meeting and public participation laws are based on two fundamental rights contained in the Montana Constitution: right to know and right of public participation.

Montana’s State Constitution provides that, The public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision as may be provided by law.

State law requires the Ravalli County Commission to develop procedures for “permitting and encouraging the public to participate” in decisions that are “of significant interest to the public.”

Further, procedures for assisting public participation must include a method of affording interested persons reasonable opportunity to submit data, views, or arguments, orally or in written form, prior to making a final decision that is of significant interest to the public.

The amount of notice required “should increase with the relative significance of the decision to be made,” with the goal of encouraging and assisting citizen participation.

The Management of Ravalli County’s Wilderness Study Areas is the Subject of Significant Public Interest

Management of the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas is of intense interest to the public. Dating back to the 1970s, these areas have been proposed for wilderness and in 1987 the Forest Service recommended a portion of the Blue Joint area for wilderness.

In 1988, legislation designating portions of the Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness study areas Wilderness passed both houses of Congress. Since 1983, Montana’s Congressional delegation has repeatedly sought to address the seven remaining WSAs created by the Montana Wilderness Study Act. Legislation was introduced in 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2009, 2011, and 2013 that proposed balanced legislative solutions for Montana’s wilderness study areas.

Today, there is still intense public interest in the management of the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas, and the areas are still popular among hunters, hikers, and others.6

Despite this intense public interest in Ravalli County’s wilderness study areas, the Ravalli County Commission took action advocating for the elimination of these areas at a poorly publicized and poorly attended meeting. Taking such an important position on the county’s wilderness study areas surely deserves more attention than a morning meeting with only two members of the public present.

As described above, Montana state law requires county commissions to provide sufficient opportunities for public input. It appears that the commission failed to do so here.

Request for Remedy

Based on the above, we respectfully request that the Ravalli County Commission, within ten days of the receipt of this letter, undertake the following actions:

  • Rescind the September 15, 2017 letter from the commission regarding legislation advocating for removal of wilderness study area designation for the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Area;
  • Schedule a well-publicized public hearing at a convenient time and location to permit the public to comment on the management of Ravalli County’s wilderness study areas.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Doug Lorain

Taylor Orr

Kathy Hundley

Joe Hundley

Dale Burk

Pat Tucker

Bruce Weide