Great Falls Tribune: Public land in Montana should be of use to all of the public

The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act introduced by Sen. Daines is meant to remove the designation from five Wilderness Study Areas (WSA’s) and return them to the normal forest planning and travel planning process.  Many of the following criticisms from letters in the local media are not based on facts.  They are simply fear mongering from those promoting more wilderness and they need to be addressed. 

First, these WSAs weren’t meant to be permanent. Sen. Metcalf’s 1977 law established the WSA’s and stated that they should be reviewed, not protected, by the Forest Service for wilderness characteristics.  Within five years, forest officials were to recommend they either be wilderness or non-wilderness. Congress would then declare them wilderness or remove the designation. If removed, WSA’s would revert to general forest planning and management. 

The Forest Service has recommended on several occasions that these WSA be released.  Congress hasn’t acted on them.

This bill wasn’t the result of a “top-down dictum” from Washington or influence from rich, out-of-state friends of Sen. Daines. It was the result of many Montanans and outdoor recreation clubs from all over the state who, as the public, want to use these areas that they have been locked out of for more than 40 years. Our own Montana legislature passed legislation supporting removal. I am not aware of “widespread local and national support for protection”.  Unfortunately, much of the bill’s opposition seems to be directed by out-of-state interests.

If these five areas had so many wilderness characteristics, they would have been included in the Montana Natural Resources Protection and Utilization act of 1988 or the Montana Wilderness Act of 1994, but they weren’t. One critic wrongly stated that the 1988 Montana Wilderness bill “included wilderness protection for Blue Joint, Sapphires, West Pioneers and Big Snowies”, but it did not.  However, President Reagan vetoed the bill, not because of the WSA issue, but because of the huge number of acres (1.4 million) the bill would designate as wilderness and its subsequent restriction on public access. 

It is important to note that the release of the designation will not result in developers building condominiums or mining companies stripping the land. These lands will be managed just like the national forest surrounding them in a way that “best meet the needs of the American people” (Public Law).

Nothing in the bill mentions a “trade” for canceling mining interests near Yellowstone Park or the Paradise Valley.

Another critic states WSA’s “provide world-class recreational opportunities that support local Montana economies..”.  True, but only if you can walk! Virtually every person I know appreciates the wealth of wilderness we have in Montana, but many like the very young, the aged or handicapped aren’t able to physically make it to these areas.  We have huge areas of wilderness in Montana, but the areas where these folks can recreate are getting smaller every year. 

There is no doubt that Montana’s economy benefits from the already over 7 million acres of designated public land where one can enjoy the wilderness experience (designated wilderness, national parks and monuments). However, by including multiple use in some areas that are not designated wilderness, it’s obvious that more jobs and increased revenue will result. Businesses like ATV and UTV dealers, snowmobile dealers, sporting goods stores, gasoline dealers and lodging businesses will all benefit.

The conclusions of a 2016 U of M poll by Lori Weigel and Dave Metz have been grossly misrepresented. The poll has nothing specifically to do with WSA’s or wilderness.  According to the Missoulian, it merely underscores the growing public support for, and economic significance of, all public lands. Most forest recreationists heartily agree with Professor Graetz and the survey’s conclusions!  

Do we need more wilderness? A few years ago, the Lewis & Clark National Forest did a user survey of citizens who were actually using the national forest. Interestingly, only about 10 percent of the visits were to designated wilderness. A similar survey done by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest reported an even smaller percent of user visits.  Do we want to set aside even more of our public land for less than 10 percent of its users?

Let’s let the truth prevail. Not hearsay, emotional misdirection or agendas from outside of Montana. 

—Steve Sem is from Great Falls