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Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area

Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area in northeastern Montana includes native short grass prairie.

Nearly 40 years after federal law preserved Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have proposed legislation that would release hundreds of thousands of acres of public land from future possibility of being protected as wilderness.

Some parts of the eight Wilderness Study Areas managed by the U.S. Forest that both Republicans want to open up for other uses probably should be taken off WSA status. Some of the Bureau of Land Management WSA acreage that Gianforte also wants to release probably should be.

This editorial board doesn’t have current, scientific information to argue that all the WSAs should be abolished. Neither do these lawmakers. The recommendations they have cited for their proposals to end WSAs in Montana are mostly 20 to 30 years old. Would anyone argue that the value of other Montana land is the same as it was in 1988?

Montana’s population has grown, along with the nation’s. Demand has exploded for outdoor recreation, wilderness experiences and the quality of life provided by wildlife, clean rivers, natural forests and prairies.

Big Snowy Mountains

While much of the public land in the WSAs is west of the Continental Divide, The Gazette has heard from readers who value spectacular WSA landscapes in the eastern half of our great state.

“It’s easy to see why most of the Big Snowy Mountains was designated as a Wilderness Study Area,” Laurie Lohrer of Lewistown wrote in a letter to the editor. “It’s the most intact island range in Central Montana, and it remains that way primarily because of protection provided by WSA designation.”

Andrew McKean, of Glasgow, wrote about the Bitter Creek WSA, “some 59,000 lonely acres just south of the Canadian line … with unroaded, pristine viewscapes, and the opportunity to get away from modern contrivances such as powerlines and compressor stations.”

Karen Aspevig Stevenson, of Miles City, told us that she and her husband have led an annual group hike into the Terry Badlands and Natural Bridges, located just northwest of Terry for nine years. They have introduced Eastern Montana to people from all over the state and as far away as New York, California, England, and even Israel.

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.”

Recommendations from these and other Montanans should be considered before Congress acts on outdated plans for our public lands.

House hearing

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 WSAs 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.

However, neither Gianforte nor Daines has held a meeting inviting public input. A recent scientifically valid Montana opinion survey conducted by a bipartisan duo of pollsters 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, told the committee that a coalition of a dozen Montana sportsmen and conservation organizations has offered to convene a working group of diverse stakeholders to come up with balanced recommendations suited to each WSA.

“We urge the committee not to advance these bills until a collaborative group of stakeholders can bring recommendations, driven by current science, to Congress,” Stone-Manning said.

A public process that updates, debates and scientifically evaluates the best use of 800,000 acres of public lands in Montana won’t be easy, but it’s the right way to make decisions for the landowners — all of us Americans.

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