Bill would remove wilderness protections from some study areas

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FILE - In this June 22, 2017, file photo, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., walks to the floor for votes at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2017. Sen. Bob Corker is hardly the only Republican lambasting Donald Trump and raising dark concerns about harm the president might cause the U.S. and the world. He’s just the only one who’s sounding off in public. A couple Republican senators who did have something to say on Oct, 9 aligned themselves with Trump, not Corker. Daines “has confidence in the president,” his office said. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

U.S. Senator Steve Daines, R–Mont., has introduced a bill to remove some Montana Wilderness Study Areas from long-standing protections.

The five areas, located in the Bitterroot, Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Lewis and Clark National Forests, total 449,500 acres and encompass vast mountain ranges, forests and canyons. They were designated as wilderness study areas in the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977.

WSAs, maintained by either the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, have features that may qualify them as full-fledged wilderness areas. Wilderness study areas status keeps an area unimpaired until Congress either designates it as wilderness, to be kept free of motorized transport or permanent infrastructure, or releases it for other use.

The latter move is long overdue for many Montana wilderness study areas, say Daines and those who back his Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act. But state conservationists aren’t convinced.

“We consider this very divisive legislation,” said John Todd, conservation director at the Montana Wilderness Association. He described the bill as “an attempt by Senator Daines to sabotage half a million acres.”

Past experience bodes ill for any quick, easy solution to these areas’ status. The 1977 law required the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to review the lands and report his findings to the president within five years, but set no deadline for Congressional action.

In a press release, Daines’s office said that various 1980s-era Forest Service plans recommended that all of the Act’s sites be managed as non-wilderness. But Todd pointed out that the issue had risen to – and eluded – Congress.

The Montana Natural Resources Protection and Utilization Act of 1988 would have released “such lands that have been reviewed and not designated as wilderness from management as wilderness areas.” However, it was pocket vetoed by President Reagan.

Frustration with the lands’ status became clear during this year’s regular legislative session, when state lawmakers passed a joint resolution calling for their release. Ongoing wilderness study areas status, it argued, “severely harms agriculture, timber harvesting and multiple-use interests, as well as Montana communities and Montana families economically supported by those activities.”

Daines cited that resolution, along with “bottom-up requests from the state Legislature and local communities,” in introducing the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act. Two areas lawmakers said they wanted released, Kootenai’s Ten Lakes wilderness study areas and Gallatin’s Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn wilderness study areas, were not included in Daines’s bill. Several recreation, extractive-industry and agriculture groups signed a letter supporting the Act.

The missing sector, Todd told the Daily Inter Lake, were conservation groups like his.

“He’s chosen to listen to a handful of groups, but as far as I know there has not been one single public conversation about what his permit plans” for the lands would be, he said.

“Our job is to reach out to our members and our supporters and make sure we build awareness ... and ask people to reach out to Senator Daines and advocate for a more inclusive process to go forward.”

Coming amid disputes over national monuments’ size and logging on Western forests, Daines’s bill may appear to open another front in the conflict over America’s public lands. But Todd saw a chance for consensus.

“We’re talking about half a million acres ... There’s room for compromise on these places.”

In the 1983 Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act, he said, Kootenai’s Mount Henry Wilderness Study Area, among others, were released in exchange for protecting nearly 255,000 acres elsewhere in the state.

He doesn’t rule out a similar pact this time. But he made clear that “that compromise has to be inclusive, and what we’re seeing from Senator Daines certainly isn’t inclusive.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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