Walsh says Montanans ‘worried’ about monument designations

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Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) said Montanans have serious misgivings about President Obama designating national monuments in the Treasure State, according to a letter he sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.


The letter, obtained by E&E Daily under the Freedom of Information Act, says Montanans are “worried” about Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act without the consultation and consent of local citizens.


“I have heard from many Montanans who have raised serious concerns regarding land protections that may be recommended by the Department of Interior,” Walsh said in his March 13 letter. “I strongly urge you not to consider the designation of any new monuments in Montana unless there is significant discussion, collaboration, and support of local citizens.”


The letter, which was not publicized, suggests the 1906 Antiquities Act remains a volatile political issue in Montana, where Walsh, who was appointed in February by Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to replace former Sen. Max Baucus (D), is locked in what is expected to be a tight election race with Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).


Walsh has said little about the Antiquities Act during his short time in office, and it’s unclear whether the issue will figure prominently in the race.


Controversy over national monuments flared up in Montana in 2010 with the release of a confidential Interior Department memo suggesting that the administration was contemplating a potential 2.5-million-acre monument along the Canadian border to protect prairies and potentially establish a new bison range.


The memo put Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), an Obama ally, in an uncomfortable position in a state where many distrust federal regulatory intrusions. Bob Abbey, who was director of the Bureau of Land Management at the time, traveled to Malta, Mont., to tamp down local concerns, and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wrote a letter to Tester to assuage his concerns.


Walsh is cognizant of that memo too.


“A leaked memorandum referenced a potential designation and our communities were rightfully outraged by the lack of outreach or consent,” Walsh wrote.


Jewell responded May 1, saying the department has “no plans to recommend federal lands in Montana be designated as a national monument, and I will not recommend a proposal without the support of local citizens.”


“I recognize and respect the importance of public and congressional input when considering appropriate protections for our natural, historical and cultural treasures,” she said.


While conservation groups are nudging Obama to declare landscape-scale national monuments in red states including Arizona, Utah and Idaho, there do not appear to be any concerted campaigns in Montana. The state has historically leaned red, but its senators, governor and at least three of its major statewide elected officials are Democrats.


Walsh and Daines likely see eye to eye on the Antiquities Act, though it’s unclear whether Walsh would have voted as Daines did in March for a bill by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to require Obama perform a National Environmental Policy Act review before designating monuments and to limit the White House to one monument per state per term.


The bill passed the House, 222-201 (E&E Daily, March 27).


Walsh spokeswoman Andrea Helling said only that the senator is “strongly opposed to any Antiquities Act decisions by any president that don’t have local support.”


In his 2012 re-election race, Tester criticized then-Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), his election opponent, for supporting a bill to hamstring the president’s national monument powers, saying there was no reason to believe the president was secretly planning to lock up public lands in their state.


“I think it’s a solution looking for a problem,” Tester said then of Rehberg’s bill.


Walsh and Daines are in lockstep, however, on a bill to bar future oil and gas leasing and mining claims in a prized watershed west of Glacier National Park. Daines has gotten the proposal through the House, but Walsh’s companion bill is being blocked in the Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).


The two have parted ways on other lands bills.


Daines is yet to join Walsh in backing Baucus’ bill to protect the Rocky Mountain Front. A bigger bill by Tester to designate wilderness and promote logging in western Montana is backed by Walsh but is apparently opposed by Daines, Tester has said.


One environmental issue likely to get significant play in the Montana race is U.S. EPA’s new proposal to curb global warming gases from power plants. Daines is dead set against the proposal, but Walsh is yet to take a concrete position (Greenwire, June 3). Montana has significant coal deposits.


Walsh is endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters.


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