One of Gianforte's bills, introduced in the U.S. House on Thursday, echoes Sen. Steve Daines' bill introduced in the Senate late last year — a proposal to release 449,500 acres of WSAs all on national forest lands. Gianforte also authored an act to release 24 Bureau of Land Management WSAs in the state — an additional 240,000 acres.
The Unlocking Public Lands Act deals with the BLM wilderness study areas. The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act carries the same name as Daines’ Senate bill and contains the same Forest Service WSAs: the West Pioneer; Blue Joint; Sapphire; Middle Fork Judith; and Big Snowies.
The BLM acreage stretches from the 7,800-acre Axolotl Lakes WSA outside Ennis to northeastern Montana’s 59,600-acre Bitter Creek WSA, southeastern Montana’s 44,900-acre Terry Badlands and nine study areas along the Missouri River Breaks ranging from Fort Benton east to Glasgow totaling more than 71,000 acres.
“Nearly 700,000 acres of Montana’s public lands have been in limbo for as long as 40 years, stuck in a perpetual study that was actually completed years ago,” Gianforte said in a press release. “Congress didn’t act then like it should have, and it’s about time we did."
According to the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, it was up to President Ronald Reagan to make wilderness recommendations to Congress on the state's forest lands set aside as WSAs.
In 1976, Congress gave the BLM and Forest Service 15 years to determine whether primitive landscapes should be protected as wilderness. Although the agencies met their deadline, progress on finalizing any wilderness designations has been derailed by politics and the courts, leaving the lands mired in controversy between user groups: hikers vs. motorized recreationists; preservationists vs. resource development advocates.
Although Gianforte said, “Unlocking these lands and returning them to Forest Service and BLM management will increase Montanans’ access to their public lands,” the lands are already open to the public to varying degrees, including roads, and are managed by the respective agencies to ensure their wilderness values are not impaired, meaning no new surface disturbance.
Wilderness advocates tout the areas for providing clean drinking water, as places to ensure habitat for fish and wildlife and to sustain the state’s $7 billion outdoor recreation economy.
Gianforte said he has strong support for the legislation from county commissions across the state, as did Daines, along with two state agricultural groups. It is in their interests, along with the Montana Legislature, that he is acting, he told Helena Independent Record reporter Tom Kuglin on Friday.
Todd Devlin, chair of the Prairie County Commissioners, wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to Gianforte that his fellow lawmakers support either completely eliminating the Terry Badlands WSA or substantially reducing its size. Devlin wrote that the WSA is a “petri dish” for noxious weeds that cannot be controlled because of current management restrictions.
“Prairie County is one of the most elderly counties in the United States,” Devlin added. “Wilderness areas and WSA do not bring additional enjoyment to our elderly. Due to the restrictions put on WSA and wilderness, you have to be very fit and youthful. This is not the case in Prairie County.”
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Devlin’s comments follow a nearly 20-year push by the Montana Wilderness Association to raise awareness about the value of the Terry Badlands to the economically depressed region of the state and increase public interest in visiting the rugged drylands. The BLM has recommended that more than 33,000 acres of the 44,900 acre WSA be designated wilderness.
"Both Congressman Gianforte and Sen. Daines have introduced bills with no public hearings," said Karen Aspevig Stevenson, repeating a common theme voiced by wilderness advocates. The Miles City resident and a spokesperson for the group Our Land, Our Legacy said Gianforte and Daines "have failed Montanans."
Gianforte told Kuglin he has no plans to conduct public hearings on WSAs in Montana, saying that the county commissions were handling that and making recommendations.
Daines avoided dissenting views on the WSA issue when visiting Hamilton in February, and has not acquiesced to wilderness supporters’ demands that he hear their side of the issue. Some county commissions came under fire for not asking their constituents how they felt about the WSAs before lending their support to Daines’ bill.
The same issues were echoed after the release of Gianforte’s bills.
“These bills ignore made-in-Montana solutions, such as the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act," said Scott Brennan, state director for The Wilderness Society, in a statement. "Montanans know that the best way to solve problems is to work together at the local level, not impose top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches from Washington, D.C."
Daines countered that the proposals are "in response to a bottom-up, locally driven movement." He also praised Gianforte’s companion bill in a press release, saying, “I’ve heard from county commissioners, outdoor recreationists, Montana families and the Montana state legislature — they are tired of Washington, D.C., paralysis locking up access to their public lands."
Montana has made slight progress on the issue. In the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 two BLM wilderness study areas in southeastern Montana were released in 2015: the 8,300-acre Zook Creek and 5,600 acre Buffalo Creek WSAs.
"So Congress has taken action but not broadly," said Al Nash, BLM communications chief in Billings' state office.
Based on 1991 figures, in Montana the BLM has proposed about 173,500 acres suitable for wilderness designation.
The text of Gianforte's orginal BLM bill will be modified to ensure that it addresses only lands the agency deemed not suitable for wilderness. Originally the bill included the entire WSA in eight areas where the BLM had recommended lands be protected as wilderness. When the Montana Wilderness Association brought the error to light, Gianforte's spokesman said the bill would be fixed.