Wild Bills: 800,000 acres of wilderness may be up for grabs

By Eleanor Guerrero
Thursday, July 26, 2018
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Map of areas (in orange) that would be released from Wilderness Study Areas if bills passed.

Wild Bills: 800,000 Acres of Wilderness Study Areas may be up for grabs, By Eleanor Guerrero, CCN Senior Reporter
Almost 800,000 acres of public lands are being considered in bills by the Senate and House to be released from protection as they currently stand. Some say the areas include wilderness that is wilder than national wilderness areas. This is coming at a time when Montanans agree more than ever that public land should be preserved. Less than 3 percent of the wilderness enjoyed by Montanans and tourists worldwide is under protection. These bills would open a large chunk of Montana’s lands to development.
Nearly 40 years after federal law preserved Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte (H.R. 5148 and 5149) have proposed legislation that would release hundreds of thousands of acres of public land from future possibility of being protected as wilderness.
Senator Daines’ bill takes 449500 acres of wild country. The senate bill includes the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs south and east of Hamilton, the Big Snowies WSA near Lewistown, the Middle Fork Judith WSA south of Stanford and the West Pioneer WSA east of Wisdom.
Gianforte has two bills proposing to release almost 690,000 acres of WSA. The first Gianforte bill Unlocking Public Lands Act would release 24 Wilderness Study Areas.
His second bill, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act has the same name as Daines’ bill and includes the same area: the West Pioneer; Blue Joint; Sapphire; Middle Fork Judith; and Big Snowies. It would release 449,500 acres of WSAs all on national forest lands. But Gianforte added an act to release 24 Bureau of Land Management WSAs in the state. That would be an additional 240,000 acres more. 
Daines said, “The Montana Legislature, county commissioners, outdoor recreationists and Montana families have asked me to do what Congress should have done decades ago. That’s why I introduced a bill to unlock our lands so they can be enjoyed by snowmobilers, mountain bikers, veterans, the elderly and many more.”

The recommendations they have cited for their proposals to end WSAs in Montana are mostly 20 to 30 years old.
Losing their designation could open them up to motorized vehicles. Roads and timber harvesting is limited on WSA’s and the loss of this designation means there is no analysis required for the impact of such on solitude and natural processes, along with other wilderness characteristics. The roadless designation may not be as restrictive as WSA’s. Logging would be limited by the roads available and management plans. BLM lands often have designations already if removed from WSA including multiple use. BLM management is governed by resource management which may require multiple use or protection. The current Forest Plan shows one of the areas, the Snowy Mountains including 98,000 acres of the Big Snowy WSA as proposed for wilderness.
Firefighting on the other hand is already allowed in wilderness areas if public safety is threatened. For emergencies, tractors and mechanized equipment and aircraft dropping water are allowed.
According to Wilderness.org, “Measured by solitude, lack of roads, wildlife and other factors, Montana public lands targeted by Congress for reduced protection are actually wilder than many national parks and designated wilderness areas.”
Congress is considering proposals that would strip protections from hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands in Montana, potentially opening them up to mining and drilling. But far from barren terrain, new research shows these tracts to be as intact and valuable as many iconic national parks.
A study published in the journal Land looked at 29 wilderness study areas in Montana targeted for ‘demotion’ by Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, ranging from the grasslands of Bitter Creek, in the northeast, to the Centennial Mountains, butting up against the Continental Divide in the southwest. It found that the wilderness study areas are ‘comparable’ to nationally significant national parks and wilderness areas in the lower 48 states--and in some cases, more valuable from a conservation standpoint.
Wilderness.org concludes, “This suggests they richly deserve not only their current status, which keeps them safe from development on provisional terms, but perhaps an elevated level of protection—including, in some cases, as federal wilderness areas.”

According to the Billings Gazette in a recent editorial for its protection, “Mike Penfold, of Billings, a former BLM state director, and Tim Bozarth, a longtime veteran BLM manager, pointed out in a guest opinion that Gianforte’s bill ‘opens fresh threats to the Upper Missouri River Breaks. His bill strips protections from Cow Creek and Antelope Creek — both recommended for wilderness designation.
The WSA’s that Gianforte’s bill would release also include: the Axolotl Lakes Wilderness Study Area; the Bell/Limekiln Canyons Wilderness Study Area; the Henneberry Ridge Wilderness Study Area; the Hidden Pasture Wilderness Study Area; the Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area; the Black Sage Wilderness Study Area; the Blacktail Mountains Wilderness Study Area; the Centennial Mountains Wilderness Study Area; the East Fork Blacktail Deer Creek Wilderness Study Area; the public land that is (A) included in the Farlin Creek Wilderness Study Area; and (B) not depicted on the map entitled “East Pioneers Wilderness” and dated September 13, 2010; the Ruby Mountains Wilderness Study Area; (12) the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Billy Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Bridge Coulee Wilderness Study Area; the Seven Blackfoot Wilderness Study Area; the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area; the Hoodoo Mountain Wilderness Study Area; the Wales Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Antelope Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Cow Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Dog Creek South Wilderness Study Area; the Ervin Ridge Wilderness Study Area; the Stafford Wilderness Study Area; and the Woodhawk Wilderness Study Area.
In a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on June 21, Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott testified at Gianforte’s invitation in favor of releasing all the BLM and Forest Service WSA’s as the legislation proposes. Gianforte has said that the Montana Association of Counties as well as several county commissions and the Montana Stockgrowers Association support his WSA bills.
But there continue to be no public meetings by either Gianforte or Daines inviting public input. The annual U. of Montana opinion survey showed 77 percent of Montanans “strongly agreed” that “a wide range of stakeholders and local communities should have the opportunity to provide their input before decisions are made” about existing public lands. Only 3 percent said public input wasn’t important.
Tracy Stone-Manning, the other Montana witness at the House hearing, was invited by the staff of Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, of Hawaii, top Democrat on the subcommittee. Stone-Manning, who works for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, offered the idea of conveing a working group of diverse stakeholders to come up with balanced recommendations suited to each WSA.
In a conference call on Tuesday, July 24, Senator Jon Tester said that he expects the bills won’t get out of committee. The threat is not dead yet and the fact is, he said, even if the lands survive this attempt, they could become part of some future large land management bill.