Promotes bill to improve conservation of 100,000 acres of public land at Senate hearing
U.S. SENATE – U.S. Senator Steve Daines, at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, announced the introduction of his “Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act” to remove certain restrictive Wilderness Study Area (WSA) designations that can hinder land management and public access. At the hearing, Biden administration officials explained that returning the WSAs to general public land management will help mitigate wildfire risk and increase public access to public lands while keeping important protections in place.
Listen to Daines’ full remarks HERE.
“My ‘Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act’ will improve the ability to restore wildlife habitat, enhance sportsmen opportunity, mitigate wildfire risk and increase public access to public lands in Montana…In summary, my bill would mean more public access and more public input for public lands.”
U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French on the public process of evaluating WSAs and the protections in place when they are returned to general public land management:
Watch the exchange HERE.
Senator Daines: Deputy Chief French, the Forest Service determined the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area was unsuitable for wilderness over 30 years ago, and then again in the fall of 2021. Could you briefly talk about what led to this determination and what public input there was in that process?
Deputy Chief French: Sure, and thank you for the question, Senator. The Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest currently went through a forest plan revision and so they follow the processes that are outlined in our 2012 planning rule. So essentially what they do is they go through the entire national forest and they first inventory lands that had the potential to become wilderness, and then they evaluate those and it goes through a very extensive public process to make that evaluation, both in areas that we’d recommend and both in areas that were currently part of the wilderness study area. Those then go through a set of alternatives for the forest plan revision, and then the decision that comes out of that, which again, is probably in this case, it was a three-to-four-year process, based on what we heard from the public and that extensive evaluation about if those lands are actually suitable is what we make our recommendations based off.
Daines: Thank you. There’s just been, I think some misinformation back home from some who suggest there isn’t a public process, if you listen obviously there is as you just so well-articulated. Some people have the misconception that by removing the Wilderness Study designation, we’re removing all protections. Could you explain what protections will remain in place after this area is returned to general management?
French: The forest plan in their recommendations in this case for removing the wilderness study area essentially would keep in place protections that are consistent with backcountry and roadless type management. So, what that means specifically is that commercial, it’s not suitable for commercial timber harvest. It’s managed more for broad scale large scale conservation and for primitive backcountry uses.
Deputy Chief French and Bureau of Land Management Assistant Director Thomas Heinlein on the forest management benefits of Daines’ bill:
Watch the exchange HERE.
Daines: Deputy Chief French and Assistant Director Heinlein as wildfire season continues, how would returning these areas to general management might improve your ability to proactively manage and mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires? We’ll start with Mr. French.
French: I, you know, given the time here, I’ll kind of land it in two places, it changes the approaches you use with suppression of fires using less MIST [Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics] type techniques that can change if the fire is getting out of control, and it changes our ability for mechanical treatments. When it is wilderness, we primarily rely on prescribed fire as a way to reduce wildland fire risk and wilderness areas versus other areas where we have a broader set of tools available.
Daines: Mr. Heinlein?
Heinlein: Similar to what Mr. French described, we would apply the same suite of tools, the same minimum impact suppression techniques that were mentioned. I would also mention that in the case of these two wilderness study areas that are the topic of the BLM lands in this discussion, if Congress were to release them and they were to become a Backcountry Conservation Areas or Areas of Critical Environmental Concern as the Missoula Resource Management Plan prescribes, the suppression tactics would be similar to as they are today would be the same standard.
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. In 2020, 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. In the fall of 2021, 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.
Supports of Daines’ bill include Judith Basin County Commissioners, Powell County Commissioners, Montana State Senate Leadership, Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Montana Farm Bureau, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, Blue Ribbon Coalition, Great Falls Bicycle Club, Montana Logging Association, Northern Rockies Wildland Fire Contracting Association and American Forest Resource Council.