One way or another, more than 90,000 people have chimed in on the Big Mountain Jesus statue issue so far, according to the Flathead National Forest.
Thursday is the deadline for public comment on a pending Forest Service decision to renew a lease for a 25-by-25-foot parcel of federal land where the statue has been located since 1955.
“We are sitting at a little over 90,000 comments. The vast majority of those were email comments,” said Derek Milner, who is leading the public review project for the Flathead Forest.
About 70,000 comments came from online supporters for a letter that was submitted to the Forest Service by the American Center for Law and Justice, advocating a lease renewal.
On Tuesday the federal agency received another 10,000 comments that were collected on Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg’s congressional website, similarly supporting lease renewal.
Milner said comments motivated by an online campaign by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation have been more difficult to quantify.
“That’s an ongoing process and the comments are still piling up day by day,” he said.
While it’s obvious the Forest Service is hearing mostly from those who support the statue and lease renewal, the agency does not regard public comment, or “scoping” processes as popular votes. But public input can be influential.
“We’ll continue reviewing comments and we’ll prepare a decision memo,” said Joe Krueger, the Flathead Forest’s environmental coordinator. The decision on whether to renew the release will probably come out in late January or early February.
Forest Supervisor Chip Weber issued a decision denying the lease renewal in August, mainly because the Forest Service’s legal counsel advised that the statue is a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment clause and legal precedent regarding religious symbols on public lands.
That’s the position of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a local group called the Flathead Secular Association.
But the decision to deny the lease renewal outraged many Flathead residents, including veterans and the local Knights of Columbus chapter, which has maintained the statue and applied for lease renewals every 10 years since 1955.
They regard the statue as a memorial to World War II soldiers, contending it was installed by veterans for that purpose.
Responding to public sentiment and Rehberg’s interest in the matter, Forest Service officials decided to reconsider the lease renewal request.
Rehberg has since introduced legislation that would provide for an exchange of similar parcels between the Forest Service and the Whitefish Mountain Resort’s private holdings on Big Mountain.
“The representative is trying to pursue a solution ... and we’re all for resolving the issues so we are supportive of that,” Krueger said.
However, the Forest Service could pursue a land swap without congressional action, just as it has on many occasions involving far larger land parcels and more complicated circumstances.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.