Bill improves conservation of 100,000 acres of public land
U.S. SENATE – Today U.S. Senator Steve Daines’ “Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act” to return to general management three restrictive Wilderness Study Area (WSA) designations that can hinder land management and public access passed the Energy and Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support.
“My ‘Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act’ will help protect our Montana way of life by promoting public access to public lands, improving the ability to restore wildlife habitat and reducing the risk of wildfire. This is a big win for Montana sportsmen and a big win for conservation, I’m glad to see my bill move one step closer to becoming law,” Daines said.
Daines announced the introduction of the “Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act” at a hearing this summer. 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.
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 nearly 50 years ago and studied for their suitability for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System, 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 in Montana alone 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.