Life’s been tough on Chris Marchion. There was the high school football injury and the knee replacement.
“Unfortunately I got a hip that’s wore out,” he says.
We’re standing alongside a gravel road near a cow pasture. Nowadays, this is about as close as Marchion can get to the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. It’s a clump of rolling, grey mountains in the distance.
Marchion grew up in a nearby mining town. He says back then the Sapphires were an escape.
“If you think about being confined in a mine or in a smelter, on your day off to be out somewhere where there’s blue sky, and trees, and clean water, it meant a lot,” he says.
But nowadays, Marchion believes the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area is in trouble.
There’s legislation moving through Congress that would strip away protections for it and some other Wilderness Study Areas in Montana.
These are vast tracts of federal land that are protected that are under review by Congress for potential wilderness designation. It’s the ultimate protection for public lands. No logging, mining or motorized vehicles.
There are hundreds of Wilderness Study Areas scattered across the Mountain West.
If passed, this bill would open some of those lands in Montana to more motorized vehicles and even potential mining.
U.S. Senator Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, introduced the legislation and says it’s long overdue. Reviews of these lands happened decades ago, according to Daines, but Congress never took action.
“What we’re doing here is pretty common sense," he says. "We’re just looking at those areas that were deemed not suitable for wilderness and releasing those.”
At an ATV store in Phillipsburg, Montana, I meet up with Stan Spencer. He’s a snowmobiler.
“I’ve been riding in the backcountry since the early ‘80s,” he says. “I hate to admit it but I am 74 years old and I still enjoy getting back out there. That’s my thing.”
But he says he can’t snowmobile in many Wilderness Study Areas because many are managed like de facto wilderness. So he’s really happy about Daines’ legislation.
“I feel he took the bull by the horns and said we need to make a decision,” he says.
Still, conservationists are frustrated Senator Daines never held public meetings before introducing his legislation. Plus, it eliminates study areas without creating new wilderness.
Paul Spitler is with the Wilderness Society, a conservation group.
He says one-sided legislation like this has never passed Congress.
“They generally receive a lot of public opposition,” he says.
There’s some history to back that up. A similar Wyoming bill never made it to the president’s desk, while Idaho took a more balanced approach that did.
“It was a collaborative effort between ranchers, conservation interests, county commissioners, and others,” Spitler says. “They sat down and ultimately reached an agreement. Some of these areas would be designated as Wilderness, some of these areas would be removed from Wilderness Study Area status and everyone came out ahead.”
But the current legislation won’t create any new wilderness. Daines counters that’s because it’s about restoring balance.
He says Congress has only eliminated 150,000 acres worth of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana. At the same, he says, it’s created more than a million acres of new wilderness there.
“It seems like it’s a kind of one-sided,” he says. “It’s like we are only adding wilderness in our state. I’ve supported that. I’m just saying if you listen to the tens of thousands of Montanans who are very concerned that the state is getting out of balance.”
Back at the edge of the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area, Chris Marchion is watching a herd of elk move across a valley.
He’s 65 years old and he hopes these lands will remain protected.
“I can’t do as many things as I used to,” he says. “Some of these areas I’ll never go back and see as much as I did when I was younger. But the fact to be out there and to know they still exist and that other people can go have the experiences I had. that’s really important.”
There are hundreds of these Wilderness Study Areas scattered across the Mountain West. Daines' legislation on cutting them back in Montana is moving through the Senate.
The state’s lone congressman, Republican Greg Gianforte, just introduced companion legislation in the House.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.