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Wild Montana: Uniting lovers of open land for a common cause

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Wilderness walk in Ennis with leader Bob Bayley in June 2022. PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN SAWICKI

Benjamin Alva Polley EBS CONTRIBUTOR

Editor’s note: In the coming weeks, Explore Big Sky will highlight three local nonprofits devoted to protecting our local lands and waterways who have partnered with our publisher, Outlaw Partners on this summer’s Wildlands Festival. Meet our third in the series, Wild Montana. Meet our first, Gallatin Valley Land Trust and second, Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Since 1958, Wild Montana has been a beacon of hope for open spaces, rallying people around a shared love of wild public lands and waters. Their work, which includes building trust with community members, fostering collaboration and forging agreements, has not only protected wild lands and enhanced public land access but also created economic opportunities for gateway communities across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It’s a powerful testament to the positive change that occurs when people work together and the direct impact it has on our local communities.

Missouri River Breaks National Monument. PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN SAWICKI

Wild Montana has spearheaded the creation of 16 wilderness areas and the establishment of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Their influence on policy and land management decisions is a testament to their dedication and impact. These achievements have safeguarded millions of acres of public lands from development and degradation, underscoring the power of collective action and the scale of their accomplishments when people unite for a common cause.

In southwest Montana, they have played a crucial role in advocating for over 275,000 acres of land protection in the new Custer Gallatin Forest Plan, a comprehensive land management plan finalized in 2022. These protections included new recommended wilderness in the Pryor and Crazy Mountain ranges. The forest plan also recommends wilderness designation for the wild heart of the Gallatin Range for the first time, reflecting the collaborative proposal for the Gallatin and Madison ranges, that was locally developed by the Gallatin Forest Partnership. The GFP is now working toward legislation that will conserve areas for wildlife migration, protect the headwaters of the Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers, maintain existing recreation uses and designate nearly 124,000 acres of new Wilderness, all a significant step towards preserving the region’s natural beauty and ecological balance.

The history of Wild Montana

Years before the Wilderness Act was passed by Congress in 1964, a group of friends met in Bozeman to discuss how they could protect Montana’s wildlands from privatization and unfettered development. Outfitters, stock growers, hikers, horse packers, hunters and others knew that public lands could be lost forever if they didn’t speak up to protect Montana’s wild places.

“Montana’s greatest resource has always been our public lands and extractive users, as they often are today, were being prioritized over other uses,” said Emily Cleveland, Wild Montana conservation director. “Montana has a history of being exploited by corporate interests that often leave locals on the hook for cleaning up what they leave behind after they’re done.”

Who’s behind it all

Wild Montana currently has 26 full-time staff members, 14 board of director members locally, and seven chapters across the state with their own local boards. 

Their funding and programs improve our communities, but they can’t do it alone. Public support is crucial and the backbone of their efforts to protect our public lands and waters and ensure Montana will be resilient in the face of climate change, rampant development and increasing pressure from a growing population.

Spotlight projects

Wild Montana’s membership was instrumental in creating and passing the 1964 Wilderness Act. Since then, they have been involved in the efforts to designate all 16 of Montana’s Wilderness areas. As Montana and our country’s social and political landscape continue to grow and shift over the years, their work has evolved to address new threats and find new opportunities to conserve Montana’s wild public lands and waters. They have expanded their efforts to include state policy work to ensure Montana’s state conservation programs are adequately funded, advance policy that benefits state public lands and sustain and create new opportunities for access to public lands across the state.

As a Lower Yellowstone River Coalition member, they have successfully garnered support from community leaders, businesses and elected officials to create 328 acres of new public lands along the lower Yellowstone River. Near Forsyth, the Wildcat Wildlife Management Area will open 2.2 miles of riverfront for hiking, hunting, fishing, boating and wildlife watching.

Additionally, Wild Montana is the driving force behind the biannual Rally for Public Lands in Helena. Held when the state legislature is in session, the rallies have drawn thousands of Montanans from across the state. Conceived initially to combat the transfer and sale of public lands, the rallies have grown into a show of support for public lands policy that prioritizes protecting public lands, wildlife and a clean and healthy environment.

Current and continuing threats

“Balancing the urgency of emerging threats with the time it takes to unite communities and build conservation solutions for the long term will remain a pressing challenge,” said executive director John Todd. 

Projects in progress

Continuing their years of collaboration and with overwhelming public support, Wild Montana is now closer than ever to getting the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act passed this year, a milestone project. The BCSA, championed by Sen. Jon Tester, will add nearly 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountain Wilderness Areas and safeguard the four most crucial tributaries of the storied Blackfoot River. This act, if passed, will demonstrate the tangible results of our collective efforts. Over the coming months, Wild Montana will encourage Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke to support the BCSA and ensure it gets a vote on the Senate and House floors.

“Poll after poll shows that conservation is still an important, bipartisan value for most of Montana,” Todd said. “If we are willing to do the hard work and partner with people whose values and interests don’t mirror our own, we can still unite Montanans around initiatives that build on what makes Montana special – our public lands and wild places.”

Wild Montana has played a central role in the last legislative session, building a united coalition of 130 bipartisan legislators, over 100 organizations and thousands of Montanans to pass Senate Bill 442, which invested over $30 million every two years in recreational marijuana tax revenue in habitat conservation, state parks and trails.

“Unfortunately, Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed the bill despite broad support,” said Cleveland. “This year, we’ll be hard at work ensuring a bill that honors the intent of SB 442 passes when the Montana Legislature reconvenes in 2025.”

They also have a southcentral Montana chapter that offers free education events and group hikes. The Madison-Gallatin Chapter organizes trail stewardship projects throughout the spring and summer months. They assist the forest service in maintaining the Lava Lake Trail in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and the Cliff Creek Trail that accesses the east side of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area.

Wild Montana strives to find collaborative, common-sense solutions for protecting our public wild lands and water. They aim to be good neighbors and find common ground, ensuring a bright future for wild places and communities.

Learn more about Wild Montana’s work at wildmontana.org.

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