U.S. SENATE – U.S. Senator Steve Daines today introduced the “Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act” to restore wildlife habitats, enhance sportsmen opportunities, mitigate wildfire risk, and increase public access to public lands in Montana by removing restrictive Wilderness Study Area (WSA) designations that can hinder land management and public access. The legislation is supported by 19 local leaders and stakeholder groups.
“After working with local stakeholders and county commissioners and looking at the science, I’m glad to introduce a bill that would enhance sportsmen opportunities and access, help restore wildlife habitats, and decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” Daines said. “For decades, land managers have been forced to decrease public access and unable to use critical conservation tools to manage these acres according to resource conditions and local input because of congressional inaction. Within the past two years, following a multi-year collaborative process with robust public comment, and using the best available science and spanning multiple Administrations, these areas were deemed unsuitable for wilderness management once again. Now it’s past time we respond to this locally-led planning direction and release them to general management of public lands.”
The three Wilderness Study Areas Daines’ bill would return to general public land management are the Middle Fork Judith WSA, the Hoodoo Mountain WSA and the Wales Creek WSA.
- These lands will remain under federal management and any action that would occur on the land would still be subject to rigorous environmental analysis which provide multiple opportunities for public involvement including the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), and Administrative Procedures Act (APA).
- WSAs were first designated and studied for their suitability for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System decades ago, but only Congress can designate Wilderness or return WSAs back to general management.
- Congress failed to respond to these initial recommendations and over one million acres of public land has been managed as Wilderness despite over 700,000 acres being determined unsuitable for Wilderness.
- Senator Daines has supported and will continue to support Wilderness and other protection designations in Montana when there is robust local support and the science and conditions support such designation. However, wilderness management is not the gold standard of conservation and as we’ve seen in these three WSAs, can prohibit land managers from using tools to restore the land and can lead to access being restricted.
Hoodoo Mountain & Wales Creek WSAs:
- The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) determined Hoodoo Mountain (11,380 acres) and Wales Creek WSA (11,580 acres) were unsuitable for wilderness over thirty years ago. Within the past two years, the BLM completed a 5+ yearlong Missoula Resource Management Plan (RMP) revision process to examine management of the WSAs if released. The revised RMP affirmed the areas’ unsuitability for wilderness and described how these areas should be managed based on robust local input, resource conditions, and ecological needs. When released from WSA status, these areas would still maintain protections under this RMP.
- The BLM has indicated Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek WSA have been devastated by a Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak leaving a high volume of standing and downed dead timber which poses a public safety risk for sportsmen and increases the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire. Removing the WSA designation allows land managers to mitigate these risks, restore, and reforest this land.
- The BLM has indicated Hoodoo Mountain would be managed as a Backcountry Conservation Area to promote and support wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities and facilitate the long-term maintenance of big game wildlife populations. Portions of Wales Creek would be managed similarly, while other portions would receive further protections under an Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) designation.
Middle Fork Judith WSA
- The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) determined the Middle Fork Judith WSA (81,000 acres) was unsuitable for wilderness over thirty years ago. Within the past year, the USFS completed a 6+ yearlong Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest Plan revision process to re-examine suitability and management of the WSA if released. The revised Forest Plan affirmed the area is unsuitable for wilderness and described how this area should be managed based on robust local input, resource conditions, and ecological needs. When released from WSA status, these areas would still maintain protections under this forest plan.
- The U.S. Forest Service has indicated Middle Fork Judith would still retain Roadless area protections; however, the agency would be freed to conduct much needed wildlife habitat restoration projects and enhance access opportunities for private land owners living within the WSA boundaries, recreationalists, and sportsmen on existing trails.
The Judith Basin County Commissioners, Powell County Commissioners, Montana State Legislature Leadership, Montana State Representative Becky Beard, Montana State Senator Dan Bartel, Northern Rockies Wildfire Contractors Association, Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, American Forest Resource Council, Capital Trail Vehicle Association, Citizens for Balanced Use, Little Belt Snowmobile Club, Montana Farm Bureau, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, Blue Ribbon Coalition, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Wool Growers Association, Montana Public Lands Council, Russell Country Sportsmen Association, and Great Falls Bicycle Club support Daines’ “Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act.”
Read bill text HERE.