By KATHLEEN WOODFORD
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., made a stop in Mineral County on Wednesday, Feb. 21 as part of a 17-county swing around the state, but left some disgruntled voters behind due to a last-minute schedule change.
Daines met with community members at the Mineral Community Hospital Conference room in the Ponderosa Building at 3 p.m. The meeting was originally scheduled for 3:15 p.m. at Durango’s Restaurant in Superior before it was moved.
Julia Doyle with Daines’ office said he was running ahead of schedule and they would be meeting at the hospital. However, Superior resident Diane Magone had gone to Durango’s and was told by someone there that Daines had cancelled the meeting because of concerns that there were going to be environmental protesters and that Daines’ group didn’t want to have any trouble for the restaurant. No notification of the change of venue was made.
“I’m upset that I missed the event,” said Magone. “Apparently much of the discussion regarded rural health care, which is a special interest of mine.” Magone is a Democratic legislative candidate in House District 14.
Others had also shown up at the restaurant to hear Daines speak and left thinking the event had been cancelled, an issue that followed his entire day of stops. On his official schedule was Philipsburg at 8:15 a.m,. then Missoula at 11:30, Hamilton at 1:15 and then Durango’s.
However, to the dismay of people in Hamilton, he showed up at 12:25 p.m. and was done before the 1:15 scheduled meeting. The Mineral Independent learned of the local time change at 1:30 p.m. and was told the meeting would begin at 2:30 p.m. at the hospital, which was then pushed back to 3 p.m.
Once the meeting got underway with approximately 15 community members gathered in the conference room, topics discussed were hospital funding and Daines’ Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act (S.2206). The bill focuses on five Wilderness Study Areas totaling 450,000 acres of Montana wilderness which have been tied up since the 1970s. These areas had been set aside as potentially worthy of wilderness protection and include the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneer, Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness area. The Blue Joint area comprises of 61,000 acres in the southern end of the Bitterroot National Forest along the Montana-Idaho border. Daines proposal would remove 32,500 acres from this WSA designation.
“Those areas are not suitable wilderness area. There’s no doubt we need some wilderness areas but we have to have a balance and allow the public full use and full access to lands not deemed suitable for wilderness,” Daines had said in a previous interview.
The WSA designation freezes the area from roads and infrastructure; motorized use and commercial activities like timber harvest and mining. The studies were initially supposed to be done within five years but delays have kept the land locked up since 1982.
By opening them back up, it would add to Montana’s $7 billion outdoor economy for ATVs, snowmobiles and hunting as well as to timber harvests — a big topic for the budget-strapped economy of Mineral County.
With only 7 percent of the county privately owned, the tax burden falls on those few property owners and leaves the county starved for cash.
“We used to have a thriving economy,” said Commissioner Laurie Johnston. “Now look at us, we can’t balance the budget.”
With 82 percent of the county forest service land, 10 percent DNRC and Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and Weyerhauser with one percent, it only leave that 7 percent explained Commissioner, Roman Zylawy. Additionally, FWP now has a program similar to the WSA and recently bought more property at the Fish Creek State Park for a total of 45,000 acres. This area is off limits to chainsaws and motorized vehicles.
When the forests were being shut down, counties were encouraged to draw on the recreational opportunities areas like what Mineral County had to offer. But with the Great Burn Wilderness proposal the Lolo National Forest from Lolo Hot Springs to the Idaho border has been closed to roads and vehicles.
“We need those areas open for recreational dollars so we don’t have to use welfare money like Secure Rural Schools (SRS) or Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funds,” Zylawy said.
Another challenge facing the county is the simple math regarding the 25 percent rule. Any timber that is harvested in Mineral County is split between all of the counties who have holdings in the Lolo National Forest. Including Missoula, Seeley and Ninemile districts.
The Superior District is carrying 62 percent of the entire forest cut and sale but only keeps a portion of it. Zylawy said that a recent MACO report read that Mineral County will receive $66,000 in timber sales while Missoula will get $98,000.
“You have Missoula who is against logging, yet they’re reaping the benefits,” said Johnston.
St. Regis School Board member, Carol Young is proposing the county charge the federal government taxes on the federal forest property in the county. It would be the same tax table used for private land owners and could amount to $500,000 to $750,000 dollars a year.
“It would be an immediate way for us to get our economy built up. We wouldn’t have to get things through Congress; we can simply send a tax bill,” she said.
Daines supported the idea and said he would present it to Congress. “At least it will get the conversation going and show what folks here are faced with.”
State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, said they are currently addressing that in Utah and the idea is gaining momentum. “They passed legislation to start assessing the tax value of that land, so they can bill for it,” she said.
Another issue discussed was the razor-thin budget the Mineral Community Hospital is operating under. Hospital CEO Ron Gleason warned that if the hospital were to close, property values would plummet. The fastest growing demographic in the county are retirees and having a hospital close by is a huge property selling point.
The meeting wrapped up at approximately 4 p.m. and Daines left for the Superior airport to fly to Kalispell, which was his next stop.