Ravalli Republic: Steve Daines is right to move forward on Wilderness Study Areas

Recent attacks towards Senator Daines’ legislation to release certain wilderness study areas demonstrate the fear and deliberate falsehoods that prevent us from moving forward on this important issue. Chris Marchion gave credibility to this theory recently with an editorial that makes false assertions while exuding the type of rhetoric that has unfortunately led many to believe that certain segments of the “conservation” community serve as a mouth piece for other political interests.

First, removing a wilderness study area designation from areas not recommended for wilderness does protect the public’s use of public land. The WSA designation carries with it a directive from Washington, D.C. to manage an area for its wilderness characteristics even though the Forest Service determined the area did NOT meet the criteria for wilderness.

That “top-down” directive now prevents mountain bikers, snowmobilers, off-highway users, and other recreationists from accessing nearly 100,000 acres and over 100 miles of trail between the Blue Joint and the Sapphire wilderness study areas in the ways they had done so for the last forty years. Removing the WSA designation will prevent other areas from a similar fate and protect the public’s use of these areas.

Second, the WSA conversation did not happen in a vacuum and the public has weighed in on these issues since they were created. Hundreds of Forest Service public meetings, tens of thousands of comments, and dozens of county commission meetings have taken place between forest planning and travel planning.

Additionally, this public and transparent process will continue to guide the disposition of the lands once the designation is removed because that is how forest planning works: potential uses across the landscape will be analyzed, commented on, and accepted or rejected based on what we, the public, want to achieve. And to suggest that only a handful of people support removing wilderness study designations for non-recommended areas discounts hundreds of thousands of Montanans represented by local elected officials and dozens of stakeholder groups including mountain bikers, snowmobilers, outfitters and guides, and sportsmen’s organizations throughout the state.

Lastly, to suggest these areas will be immediately open to rampant development is patently false. The 2001 roadless rule still applies and prevents any new road construction or reconstruction in these areas.

The idea that existing infrastructure under current forest and travel plans (which will guide future management until the public changes it through the next planning process) will guarantee massive mining or timber operations and “lock out” Montana’s recreation community is demonstrably false.

Senator Daines is taking a positive step forward and finally correcting the problems cause by study areas locked in perpetuity since Jimmy Carter was President.

Removing the designation for non-recommended wilderness areas will finally allow more Montanans an opportunity to access these special places and protect the public’s use of these areas for generations to come. Fear mongering, not Senator Daines, is what stands in the way.