Five wilderness study areas left in legislative limbo for 35 years would be released to multiple use planning under a proposed bill by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana.

The 449,500 acres of wild country include 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.

“These lands were to be studied for five years and the findings reported to the president,” Daines said in a conference call to reporters on Thursday. “We are now 35 years past due on the deadline set by Congress, and action has not been taken. It’s paralysis in Washington that has frozen Montanans’ access and use of their public lands.”

Daines’ bill affects WSAs recommended for non-wilderness designation by both the U.S. Forest Service and local stakeholders. The areas were first put up for wilderness consideration by Sen. Lee Metcalf in 1977. Metcalf died in 1978, and subsequent Montana congressional delegations have mostly failed to agree on legislation that would resolve those proposals. The state Legislature passed a joint resolution in February asking Congress to either confirm or release almost 1 million acres of WSAs.

“This is not about whether you are for wilderness or against wilderness,” Daines said. “Montanans want to see wilderness, but they also want to see less restrictions on lands not designated as wilderness.”

Daines said his bill would not affect any existing federal wilderness areas or places the Forest Service had formally recommended for wilderness designation. He added that he didn’t include two WSAs targeted by the Legislature’s joint resolution because they didn’t have local opposition. They were the 151,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn south of Bozeman and the 34,000-acre Ten Lakes area north of Eureka.

Wilderness study areas are public lands that may meet the federal Wilderness Act standards of “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” and “may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value.”

Federal courts have required the Forest Service to preserve those qualities in WSAs. That has meant enforcing travel plans that restrict ATVs, snowmobiles and bicycles from the area, in keeping with the law’s ban on “mechanical transport.”

“Motorized recreation has been largely or completely excluded from these wilderness study areas,” said Russ Ehnes of the Great Falls Trail Bike Riders Association. “The Forest Service has made decisions based on a desire to comply with interpretations by courts, rather than what uses were appropriate for those areas. Releasing these areas gives all Montanans and Americans a voice in how these areas are managed.”

George Nickas of Wilderness Watch said protecting those places from new motorized access was exactly the point of Metcalf’s study law.

“Basically what the courts have told the Forest Service is you have to preserve presently existing wilderness character,” Nickas said. “All this talk about how uses have been restricted — they haven’t been beyond the kinds of uses and levels occurring back then (in the 1970s). The ATVers, snowmobilers, and mountain bikers don’t like that. They want to get into these areas.”

Ravalli County Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott said the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs had been in need of resolution since 1987, when the Forest Service recommended against giving parts of them full federal wilderness protection.

“We’ve worked very hard to have this issue addressed for nearly 40 years,” Chilcott said. “They’re still managed as wilderness, which negatively impacts management decisions in Ravalli County. That affects fire suppression strategies and public access to public lands.”

During questions with reporters, Daines said his bill could be necessary to win bipartisan support for another measure Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, has written to halt gold mining in the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition community director Karrie Kahle disputed the need for linking the two measures.

"We think our delegation can pass legislation to protect our jobs and way of life without creating unnecessary controversy in other areas of the state," Kahle said in an email. "Our legislation has widespread bipartisan support and minimum opposition so it should stand  squarely own its own two feet in Congress."

Daines added the WSA bill would also help the Forest Service refocus its public process of land management by giving it a clear congressional answer that those lands should be considered for something other than wilderness, such as timber harvest or multiple-use recreation.

Wilderness Watch’s Nickas said that showed Daines’ “true anti-wilderness colors.”

“He’s on a single-minded mission to minimize wilderness protections everywhere in the state,” Nickas said. “This bill is a classic example of it. Just because he wore a backpack once upon a time doesn’t make him a wilderness advocate.”

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