The Opinion pages are important because they reveal what’s on people’s minds, such as the controversy surrounding U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ wilderness study area (WSA) bill (S. 2206). This bill would direct the U.S. Forest Service to remove WSA designation from acreage not currently recommended as wilderness for five WSAs in Montana. Opponents allege the senator and allied county commissioners undervalue wildlands, are biased toward motorized recreation and want to develop some of the last unroaded areas on Montana national forests.
I agree. Why does Daines disparage longtime Montana sportsmen’s organizations that support retaining the current status of WSAs — organizations that have a long history of conservation leadership and representing hunters and anglers in Montana? Why didn’t he hold any public meetings on his contentious bill? (Public comment on an almost 40-year-old environmental impact statement is of minimal value in 2018.) When he did hold meetings, why did he meet in advance only with elected officials and the motorized recreation community? Why did he “skip out the back door” when opponents arrived to meet him at the scheduled time? Why do his allies continue to claim overwhelming support for his Bill when no supporting data exists?
Why is Senator Daines pushing so hard when there is no logical reason to do so? WSAs have been in their current status for almost four decades and the world has not come to an end. Why the sudden urgency? Why must the U.S. Senate lead the charge and for what purpose?
This effort is not only a waste of time; it is a waste of money. It serves no meaningful purpose other than to highlight a political agenda, rally the senator’s base and appease some irritated motorized recreation users.
Daines claims that his legislation is necessary because WSAs have been in limbo for too long, but S. 2206 doesn’t solve the problem. It actually complicates things. National forests that contain WSAs are, or soon will be, revising their forest plans. This is an ideal time to re-evaluate the disposition of WSAs in the context of overall management of the national forests. The revision process is not a piecemeal approach and it requires a comprehensive and landscape level assessment of existing management direction in light of current and changed conditions. Daines is actually proposing a constraint on this established evaluation and planning process — a constraint that doesn’t consider adjacent land uses or changed conditions that have occurred since the mid-‘80s. His proposed legislation is not only costly, unnecessary and counterproductive; it exacerbates an already polarized situation.
Daines’ proposal looks like a preemptive strike against the Forest Service’s ability to reconsider wilderness recommendations despite new data, changed conditions and evolving public expectations. It would be especially problematic for the Helena-Lewis and Clark Forests, where the Big Snowies WSA, although not originally recommended as wilderness, is currently being considered for wilderness in the draft revised plan. Would S. 2206 eliminate the possibility for the Big Snowies to become wilderness?
Daines and allied county commissioners should let the Forest Service do its job. In the absence of S. 2206, the Service can revise its plans in full transparency and open public involvement. The agency can incorporate updated information regarding changes in wildfire conditions, public use patterns and habitat requirements for fish and wildlife. Interdisciplinary teams of subject matter experts could then objectively evaluate WSAs in the context of larger landscapes and the Forest Service could develop plans that meet the needs of the greatest number of people.