U.S. Sen. Steve Daines recently introduced S. 2206, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act. This bill would release five wilderness study areas in Montana that for 40 years have been called “study” areas.

According to the law, these and other “study areas” were to be examined for no more than five years by the U.S. Forest Service to determine the validity of a wilderness designation. The main word in the name that stands out is “study.”

U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf carried the bill that designated these and others as WSAs, and it passed into law in 1977. This law required the Forest Service to do studies on these lands as directed. They came back with an adverse recommendation for the five WSAs released in this bill; however, nothing was ever done to release them until now.

It is not only ludicrous that a five-year study has been done and left to sit for 35 years, but that the Forest Service came back with a recommendation that these lands did not meet the criteria for wilderness and yet, they are still being managed as such. It is very unfair to Montanans that the land has been tied up in this “study” for so long and has never been resolved. It’s now being managed as de facto wilderness, even though it doesn’t have that “official” designation.

These five WSAs set to be released by S. 2206 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.

All Daines’ bill is doing is releasing five of the wilderness study areas that the Forest Service has said do not meet the requirements for wilderness. There are around 40 wilderness study areas in the state of Montana, many of which were designated as such more than 40 years ago. Five years is more than enough time for the agencies involved to properly “study.” If Congress does not find that there is enough evidence supporting a full wilderness designation after that period of time has elapsed, the land should be released from the “study” and returned to former management practices.

Unfortunately, many WSAs have been under this designation for far longer than five years and as it currently stands, they are being managed very similarly to full-on wilderness areas, which inhibits the productivity of those lands, harming agriculture and other natural resource industries, as well as the small towns and communities that rely on those industries.

The most important thing to remember is that removing their wilderness study area designation does not take away their status as public land; it simply changes the management practice, allowing for more use by the public.

Some special interest groups claim the Protect Public Use of Public Lands is an attack on public lands. It’s not. In fact, by removing land from the WSA and opening them up to everyone, more, not less, Montanans will be able to enjoy these lands. It’s way beyond time.

-- Hans McPherson of Stevensville is president of Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

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