Great Falls Tribune: Daines submits legislation to remove 449,500 acres from Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas

Public lands and protections remain a hot topic in Washington D.C. Thursday as Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced legislation to remove 449,500 acres in Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas.

Daines describes the “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act” as an effort to follow bottom-up requests from the state legislature and local communities. 

 “As a fifth-generation Montanan and an avid outdoorsman, I know how important public use of our public lands is to Montanans,” Daines said in a statement. “Forty years of D.C. paralysis has frozen our access and use of public lands. It’s time to keep public lands in public hands.” 

The WSAs included in Daines’ proposed legislation are the same areas included in Republican Rep. Kerry White of Bozeman’s House Joint Resolution 9 that passed 60-40 in the House and 33-17 in the Senate in 2017. HJ 9 asked the U.S. Congress to address Montana’s seven WSAs on National Forest System Lands. 

The areas Daines described as “improperly managed public lands” include the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Areas, Sapphire Wilderness Study Area, Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area, Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area and the Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area.

The Crystal Cascades trail takes hikers to a waterfall that pours out of a cave. The hike is much easier than the Ice Caves at 7 miles round trip. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Sadie Russell)

“This divisive, top-down legislation would deprive Montanans of having a say on nearly a half-million acres of our wildest, most pristine public lands,” Ben Gabriel, executive director of Montana Wilderness Association, said in a statement. “With this bill, Sen. Daines would sabotage the wild legacy Montanans expect to pass on to our children – all without any public input. Decisions involving future management of these areas must include input gathered from communities closest to these areas, while recognizing these public lands belong to all Americans.” 

However, Daines has received support from the Montana Mining Association, Citizens for Balanced Use, Big Game Forever, Montana Snowmobile Association, Treasure State Resource Association, the Beaverhead County Commissioners, Ravalli County Commissioners, Judith Basin County Commissioners, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Snowmobile Association and The Capital Trail Vehicle Association, among others.

 “(We) believe that the over 10 million acres of wilderness and national parks within one day’s drive of Dillon are ample in meeting ecological, environmental and human needs for wilderness in this region,” the Beaverhead County Commissioners said in a statement. “We, therefore, urge the agencies to forego an agenda of adding acres to wilderness for the sake of adding acres to wilderness. As well as to manage remaining non-wilderness federal lands to allow the greatest degree of access to the widest spectrum of users, to provide the highest level of utilitarian-compatible multiple-uses, and to employ our knowledge of revenue generating methods for the benefit of Beaverhead County Citizens, the visitors who come to see this northern Rocky Mountain landscape and all of the people of the United States.” 

The Wilderness Study Areas outlined in Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act were designated by Congress in the 1970’s to be researched by the U.S. Forest Service on whether they should or should not be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System. 

Each WSA has certain restrictions based on Travel management plans that limit or eliminated motorized and mechanical use. Should the WSA be released, uses within these areas could be reconsidered.