Ripon Advance: Daines bill opens up public lands 40 years after feds’ recommendation

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines on Thursday introduced legislation to protect citizens’ public land access and use in Montana following requests from the Montana State Legislature and local communities.

The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act would release 449,500 acres of the total more than 1 million acres in Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), as the U.S. Forest Service has recommended. The land would be available for boosting Montana’s $6 billion outdoor economy and its agriculture economy, according Daines’ office.

“As a fifth-generation Montanan and an avid outdoorsman, I know how important public use of our public lands is to Montanans,” Daines said. “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.”

This year both houses of the state legislature approved a resolution asking Congress to address the issue of seven Montana WSAs on National Forest System lands, and county commissioners in affected counties support the release.

The WSAs were designated by Congress in the 1970s to be researched by the U.S. Forest Service on whether they should be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System. In the 1980s the Forest Service made its recommendations to Congress, and this resulted in a non-wilderness recommendation or a partial non-wilderness designation for all of the WSAs. Since the 1980s, Congress has been responsible for releasing WSAs.

Montana legislative leaders spoke out in support of Daines’ legislation.

Montana House of Representatives Speaker Austin Knudsen, said, “I’m glad that Senator Steve Daines heard the legislature’s call for action and has introduced legislation to review hundreds of thousands of acres of Wilderness Study Area designations in Montana. The legislature recognizes the different uses of our public lands and the multiple benefits to the diverse communities they serve, and it’s high time to ensure that lands currently designated as WSA unnecessarily are removed.”

Knudsen’s colleague, Montana Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas said, “I have seen first-hand the significant challenges that both the Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas have presented when it comes to land management. I, along with the rest of the community, strongly support Senator Daines efforts to release portions of the WSAs in Ravalli County.”

Greg Chilcott, a member of the Ravalli County Commission, said, “It’s great to see Senator Daines address public land challenges that so many have been dealing with for decades. WSA directives have complicated land management and reduced access and use for many public land users.”

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF), and agricultural, mining, land use, recreational, and sportsmen’s organizations also support the release.

MFBF President Hans McPherson said, “Our members appreciate that there is a renewed focus on the management of federal lands, especially with regard to Wilderness Study Areas. MFBF supports the release of all Wilderness Study Areas that have been designated as WSAs for more than five years but have failed to reach wilderness status.”