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Wilderness advocates settle in for the long game

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Someday, the political winds will shift. Bill Cunningham uttered these words amid the hum of roughly two-dozen people at downtown Missoula's Public House on a recent Thursday night. He'd driven to town from his Choteau home with a carousel's worth of slides, like a neighbor in an '80s sitcom come to rehash his latest vacation. Instead of some tropical paradise, though, Cunningham was here to share his exploits in some of the state's wildest corners—tracts the longtime outfitter and wilderness advocate says are under threat from an administration that is "completely stacked" against progressive agendas.

"I think the fact that Trump is doing everything he can to overturn and destroy the Obama legacy has got people genuinely alarmed," Cunningham says, "and that goes from climate change all the way down to our public lands."

Cunningham's pictorial tour of wilderness study areas is the latest in a string of spring events put on by the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, a group dedicated to fostering citizen input on national forest plan revisions in western Montana. Cunningham, who has advocated for and trekked through wilderness alongside luminaries like Stewart Brandborg, sees the task force as poised to muster strength from the rise in activism touched off by Trump's victory. "More people are going to get involved. It's just like voter turnout in an election. When there's a high voter turnout, progressives win. When there's a low voter turnout, progressives lose."

Task force cofounder Mike Bader believes that part of the group's appeal is also tied to developments in wilderness politics in Montana. The task force has gained attention in recent months for its criticism of Sen. Jon Tester's Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, the product of a years-long collaboration among wilderness organizations, industry reps and wildland user groups. The bill would add 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, but compromises with snowmobilers and mountain bikers affecting 5,000 acres in the Monture Creek drainage have generated mixed—even heated—reactions within the conservation community.

"You can keep splitting the baby until it has no limbs and eventually no life, and everybody says, 'Well, this will be the last time,'" Bader says. "That's nice, but there is no next time. I think that's what's driving the interest."

Despite that current "friction," as Bader calls it, the task force did not interfere last Thursday as Cunningham invited Montana Wilderness Association field director Zack Porter to briefly explain the Blackfoot-Clearwater collaboration. Jake Kreilick, another task force cofounder and restoration coordinator for the WildWest Institute, says they may disagree with groups like MWA on the appropriate mechanisms for roadless area protection—given current political majorities, Kreilick and his fellows prefer the forest plan revision process over congressional legislation—but the group is keeping a civil tongue for now, and hoping the shift predicted by Cunningham comes soon.

"Unless we have forest plans that are as good as we can possibly get them," Cunningham says, "we're not going to have a solid base for legislation down the road."

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