Great Falls Tribune: Protecting public use of public lands

In 1977, President Carter signed a law that required the Forest Service to study 973,000 acres in Montana to determine if they were suitable for wilderness. The findings were to be reported in five years and Congress was to take action afterward.

The Forest Service completed the study and determined that several of the study areas in Montana were not suitable for wilderness in its final plan. Thirty-five years later – we’re still waiting for D.C. to get its job done and release the study areas.

I’ve introduced the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, which will take action on five study areas included in the Forest Service’s recommendation from decades ago. These lands were designated as not suitable for wilderness and have strong local support to be released. However, restrictions have continued to pile up for hundreds of thousands of these acres, limiting public use. This has prevented generations of family traditions from continuing – including mountain biking, motorcycling, snowmobiling and ATVing, which are a part of Montana’s more than six billion dollar outdoor economy.

I have heard from local communities and the Montana State Legislature that the five study areas included in my bill – and that were designated as not suitable for wilderness by the Forest Service in its final plans – need to be addressed.

My legislation is not about whether you are for wilderness or against wilderness. Wilderness areas represent nearly 20 percent of National Forest System lands in Montana and are an important piece of our state’s landscape. But Montanans want to see less restrictions on lands not suitable for wilderness.

Under my bill, Montanans who want more access in these five study areas for recreation will have a chance to provide input through a public planning process.

Remember, these 449,500 acres of public lands across our great state were once accessible to more Montanans. For example, it wasn’t too long ago that families were loading up their rigs in the Lewis and Clark National Forest to climb Prospect Ridge down into Cleveland Creek. D.C.’s paralysis froze Montanans’ access to use these public lands, taking away experiences from kids and families.

As a fifth-generation Montanan and avid outdoorsman myself, I know how important access to our public lands is to all of us. Public lands that are only accessible to a few are not public at all and I am committed to keeping public lands in public hands.