12.07.17

Daines Introduces Legislation to Protect Public Use of Public Lands

Bottom-Up Legislation Will Allow More Montanans to Access Public Lands

U.S. SENATE — U.S. Senator Steve Daines today introduced legislation, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, to protect public access and use of Montana’s public lands by implementing the Forest Service’srecommendation to release 449,500 acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in Montana.

“As a fifth-generation Montanan and an avid outdoorsman, I know how important public use of our public lands is to Montanans,” Daines stated. “Forty years of DC paralysis has frozen our access and use of public lands. It’s time to keep public lands in public hands.” 

This bill follows bottom-up requests from the state legislature and local communities. Implementing the Forest Service recommendation for these WSAs will increase the value of public lands for Montana outdoor recreationists of all ages and across the board—hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, mountain bikers, off-road vehicles users and more, bolstering Montana’s $6 billion outdoor economy and balancing our iconic wildlife populations. The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act enhances Montana’s outdoor heritage and agriculture economies.

WSAs included in this legislation to protect public access and use are: 

1) Supported for address by the local community;

2) Not Recommended for wilderness by the Forest Service in a final plan,

3) Included in the State Legislature Resolution that passed in 2017 (H.J.Res. 9 Passed 60-40 in House, 33-17 in Senate) asking the U.S. Congress to address Montana’s seven WSAs on National Forest System Lands. 

Improperly managed public lands and statements of support to protect public use of public lands: 

1. West Pioneer Wilderness Study Areas 

The West Pioneer WSA comprises approximately 151,000 acres in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest just east of Wisdom, Montana. The West Pioneer WSA was recommended to be managed as non-wilderness by the Forest Service as a part of the 1981 Forest Plan. In a recent letter from the Beaverhead County Commissioners, the commissioners outlined the need for the U.S. Congress to act on the Forest Service’s decision to manage as non-wilderness and to release the West Pioneer WSA. 

In the northern half (Lacy Creek north) of the WSA, 19.8 miles of single-track trails and 4.25 miles of roads have been closed to motorized wheeled travel since 1977. All roads, trails, and areas in the southern half of the WSA are closed to motorized wheeled vehicle use yearlong. These uses may be increased in the public planning process with the WSA release. This WSA was among the seven WSAs requested by the Montana Legislature to be addressed. 

Beaverhead County Commissioners: “The Beaverhead County Commissioners believe that the over 10 million acres of wilderness and national parks within one day’s drive of Dillon are ample in meeting ecological, environmental, and human needs for wilderness in this region. We therefore urge the agencies to forego an agenda of adding acres to wilderness for the sake of adding acres to wilderness. As well as to manage remaining non-wilderness federal lands to allow the greatest degree of access to the widest spectrum of users, to provide the highest level of utilitarian-compatible multiple-uses, and to employ our knowledge of revenue generating methods for the benefit of Beaverhead County Citizens, the visitors who come to see this northern Rocky Mountain landscape, and all of the people of the United States.” Click HERE to download their full letter of support.

2. Sapphire Wilderness Study Area

The Sapphire WSA comprises approximately 94,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest and parts of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest just east of Hamilton, Montana. The Sapphire WSA was recommended to be managed as non-wilderness by the Forest Service as part of the 1987 Forest Plan. The Ravalli County Commissioners recently sent a letter in support of releasing both WSAs in the Bitteroot Forest. 

Per the 2016 Travel Management Plan, all motorized and mechanical uses have been closed in the Bitterroot portion of the Sapphire WSA. With the WSA released, these uses could be reconsidered.

In the Beaverhead, since 1977 the Forest Service has closed approximately 30 miles of trails and three miles of road to motorized wheeled vehicles yearlong. These trails remain open for foot, stock, and mountain bike use. These uses could be reconsidered with the WSA released.

Ravalli County Commissioners: “Ravalli County strongly supports legislation to finally address WSAs. Ravalli County has been asking Congress and the Department of Agriculture to address this critical land use issue for years...These Wilderness Area, in many cases, the origin of catastrophic forest fires that burn tens of thousands of acres of National Forest, State Forest and private property every year. The Ravalli County Commissioners strongly support and encourage federal policy reform that requires active forest management rather than the current model that results in catastrophic fires, loss of life and property, economic impacts, loss of wildlife habitat and significant impacts to our citizen’s health and safety from hazardous air quality.” Click HERE to download their full letter of support. 

3. Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area

The Middle Fork Judith WSA is comprised of approximately 81,000 acres in the Lewis and Clark National Forest just south of Stanford, Montana. The Middle Fork Judith WSA was recommended to be managed as non-wilderness by the Forest Service in 1982 and 1986. Instead, it recommends for primitive recreation, wildlife management and development/timber management along Harrison Creek drainage. This area is well-known for multiple use, including: hunting, motorcycling and snowmobiling.

The 2007 Travel Management Plan reduced the number of motorized routes and restricted season of use within the WSA. There was a reduction in acres available to snowmobiles from 100% to one approximately 8-mile route. Twelve motorized routes (4 full size, 1 ATV, 12 motorcycle) were reduced to four routes (2 full size, 1 ATV, 4 motorcycle). These uses can be reconsidered without a WSA designation. 

Judith Basin County Commissioners: “The Judith Basin County Commissioners would ask Congress to remove the Wilderness Study Area classification from the Middle Fork of the Judith Basin River in the Little Belt Mountain and have the Forest Service manage the area as non-wilderness.”

Russell Country Sportsmen’s Association: “Russell Country Sportsmen’s Association supports the legislation introduced by Senator Daines that would remove Wilderness Study Area designations in the Middle Fork of the Judith and the Big Snowies of the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest.  The Forest Service study of these areas was completed over 40 years ago with the recommendation by the Forest Service that non-wilderness management be approved for both areas. The current WSA status of these areas is a roadblock to good forest management and public recreation.  Removing these designations will restore public access to our public lands and multiple-use to our forest.”

4. Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area

The Big Snowies WSA comprises approximately 91,000 acres in the Lewis and Clark National Forest just south of Lewistown, Montana. The Big Snowies WSA was recommended to be managed as non-wilderness by the Forest Service in 1982. We have received extensive feedback and support from the Judith and Fergus County Commissioners, sportsmen’s groups and constituents for the release of the Big Snowies WSA. This area is well-known for multiple use, including: hunting, motorcycling and snowmobiling.  

The Travel Management Plan reduced the number of motorized routes within this WSA. There is a reduction in acres available to over snow vehicles by approximately 60%. Nine motorized routes open to full size vehicles, were reduced to three open to full size vehicles. These uses can be reconsidered without a WSA designation.

Fergus County Commissioners: “The Fergus County Commissioners are in support of the efforts to remove 98,000 acres from the Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area designation. We believe this area has languished under this designation long enough. It is time to allow the Forest Service to integrate the management of these lands with the rest of the national forest lands…we appreciate the consideration afforded local government when making decisions that impact our community and our way of life. Click HERE to download their full letter of support.

Russell Country Sportsmen’s Association: “Russell Country Sportsmen’s Association supports the legislation introduced by Senator Daines that would remove Wilderness Study Area designations in the Middle Fork of the Judith and the Big Snowies of the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest.  The Forest Service study of these areas was completed over 40 years ago with the recommendation by the Forest Service that non-wilderness management be approved for both areas. The current WSA status of these areas is a roadblock to good forest management and public recreation.  Removing these designations will restore public access to our public lands and multiple-use to our forest.”

5. Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area

The Blue Joint WSA comprises approximately 61,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest south of Hamilton on the Idaho/Montana boarder. The Forest Service recommended in its 1987 Forest Plan to add 28,500 acres (of the 61,000 acres) to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness or designate it as a separate unit. The remaining 32,500 acres were recommended to be managed as non-wilderness. This bill would release these 32,500 acres. The area is well known for multiple use, including: hunting, motorcycling, mountain biking and snowmobiling. 

Per the 2016 Travel Management Plan, all motorized and mechanical travel have been closed in the Blue Joint WSA. These uses can be reconsidered with the WSA release.

Ravalli County Commissioners: “Ravalli County is surrounded by millions of acres of Wilderness Area and National Parks that are located within a day’s drive. These Wilderness Area, in many cases, the origin of catastrophic forest fires that burn tens of thousands of acres of National Forest, State Forest and private property every year. The Ravalli County Commissioners strongly support and encourage federal policy reform that requires active forest management rather than the current model that results in catastrophic fires, loss of life and property, economic impacts, loss of wildlife habitat and significant impacts to our citizen’s health and safety from hazardous air quality.” Click HERE to download their full letter of support.

The release of the WSAs also has support from: 

Greg Chilcott, Ravalli County Commission: "It's great to see Senator Daines address public land challenges that so many have been dealing with for decades. WSA directives have complicated land management and reduced access and use for many public land users." 

Austin Knudsen, Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives: “I’m glad that Senator Steve Daines heard the Legislature’s call for action and has introduced legislation to review hundreds of thousands of acres of Wilderness Study Area designations in Montana. The Legislature recognizes the different uses of our public lands and the multiple benefits to the diverse communities they serve, and it’s high time to ensure that lands currently designated as WSA unnecessarily are removed.” Click HERE to download his full letter of support. 

Hans McPherson, President, Montana Farm Bureau Federation: "Our members appreciate that there is a renewed focus on the management of federal lands, especially with regard to Wilderness Study Areas. MFBF supports the release of all Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) that have been designated as WSAs for more than five years but have failed to reach wilderness status.” Click HERE to download his full letter of support. 

Russ Ehnes, Great Falls Trail Bike Riders Association: “The Great Falls Trail Bike Riders Association strongly supports Senator Daines effort to release Montana Wilderness Study Areas for forest management.  The forty-one years of “limbo” needs to end for these areas so our professional land managers can make decisions that are best for the land, forests, and citizens of Montana. The current status of these lands only complicates forest planning and has resulted in areas with poor forest health and few options for management.” 

Senator Fred Thomas, Montana Senate Majority Leader: “As the Senate Majority Leader of Montana, I have seen first-hand the significant challenges that both the Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas have presented when it comes to land management. I, along with the rest of the community, strongly support Senator Daines efforts to release portions of the WSA’s in Ravalli County. Bringing certainty to lands that have been in limbo since their analysis nearly forty years ago only creates more difficulty for local communities and land managers alike.”

Jason Howell, President, Montana Snowmobile Association: “The Montana Snowmobile Association promotes responsible use of public lands for winter recreation. These landscapes are important winter recreation areas that have been previously identified as not meeting a recommendation for Wilderness and we therefore support the release of the antiquated WSA status.” 

The Capital Trail Vehicle Association: “We want to bring a problem to your attention that is important to many outdoor recreationists. The problem involves two areas in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, Middle Fork of the Judith and the Big Snowies. These two areas are being held from the public by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977 (MWSA 1977). The Middle Fork of the Judith in the Little Belts and the Big Snowies were designated wilderness study areas by a congressional act way back in the 1970's. The act clearly stated these areas were to be evaluated and designated as wilderness or returned to multiple- use (https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/95/s393/text). The law did not intend for these areas to remain in limbo for 40 years because of inaction but unfortunately that is what has happened. The Lewis and Clark National Forest is one of the most popular areas for outdoor recreation in Montana. Two of the most popular and scenic areas within the forest is the Middle Fork of the Judith River and the Big Snowies south of Lewistown. Unfortunately, multiple use of both areas by the public has been severely restricted by the MWSA 1977. The Act has been a critical factor in the Forest Service's inability to develop a reasonable forest plan for the area. Rescinding the MWSA 1977 designation would open the area for enjoyment by all of the public and allow the Forest Service to better manage the forest in these two areas.” Click HERE to download their full letter of support.

Citizens for Balanced Use: “The 7 Wilderness Study Areas managed by the Forest Service in Montana were created 40 years ago with a timeline put in place in the Wilderness Study Act for review and action by congress. Over the past 40 years most of these areas have been studied for wilderness character and found to be not of sufficient wilderness character to be formally designated yet Congress has not acted to release these areas back to multiple use management. Because of changes in management direction by the Forest Service for Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, most historical uses of these areas has been removed. The organizations listed below showed support for the action on these 7 Wilderness Study Areas in Montana.”

  • Citizens for Balanced Use
  • Big Game Forever
  • Safari Club International
  • Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association
  • Montana Snowmobile Association
  • Montana Mining Association
  • Montana Stockgrowers Association
  • Treasure State Resource Association

Click HERE to download their full letter of support.

Background:

These Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) were designated by Congress in the 1970’s to be researched by the U.S. Forest Service on whether they should or should not be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System. In the 1980’s the Forest Service made their recommendations to Congress and this resulted in a non-wilderness recommendation or a partial non-wilderness designation for all of the WSAs. It has since the 1980’s been the responsibility of Congress to release the WSAs.  

Montana Wilderness Facts and Findings:

  • 3,443,038 acres of designated Wilderness
  • 1,104,874 acres in Wilderness Study Areas
  • 902,304 Forest Service Recommended Wilderness acres
  • 6,290,437 acres designated as roadless areas in Forest Service lands 

The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act is available to download HERE.

  

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Contact: Marcie KinzelBreanna Deutsch