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Environment & Science

Conservation Groups Riled Over Daines' Public Lands Bill

Senator Steve Daines
Senator Steve Daines

Republican Senator Steve Daines introduced legislation Thursday that would end wilderness study area protections for some federal lands in Montana. But conservation groups aren't happy. 

"We're talking about the largest elimination of protected public lands in the history of Montana," says John Todd, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association.

Daines’ bill would end certain protections for almost 500,000 acres of land designated as Wilderness Study Areas, or WSAs. These are places under review for potential wilderness designation. They are closed off to resource extraction, logging and certain bicycle and motorized vehicle use.

“Congress said go study these acreages and come back and tell us which should be deemed as wilderness and which is not suitable for wilderness," says Senator Steve Daines. "That is precisely what we are doing here today.”

Daines says those lands were only supposed to be studied for five years.

“We are now 35 years past due," he says. "The deadline set by congress - November 1st of 1977 - gives five years for the study and the action has not been taken.”     

Daines says the U.S. Forest Service did not recommend Congress designate any of these places as wilderness, but Todd says those recommendations came during the Reagan administration.

“What other recommendations would you act on in any kind of meaningful way that were made to you back in the Reagan administration?" he says. "I think it’s fair to say those are outdated for most communities in Montana and I think it’s also fair to say that Montanans expect to have a voice in the future of these places.”       

Other conservation groups in the state have also opposed the bill. However, it’s gotten support from some county commissioners, Republican state legislators, and motorized vehicle associations.

Russ Ehnes, president of the Great Falls Trail Bike Riders Association, says releasing these lands from WSA restrictions is good for the outdoor recreation economy -- especially when it comes to motor bikes, snowmobiles and ATVs.

“It’s very important to me to have a robust economy because I’m tired of seeing our greatest export being our kids when they have to leave Montana for a good paying job or an opportunities to have a high quality life," he says.         

If passed, the bill ends protections for the West Pioneer, Sapphire, Middle Fork Judith, Big Snowies, and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas.

Last February, Republican state representative Kerry White introduced a resolution asking Congress to release seven wilderness study areas in Montana.

The U.S. Forest Service manages 7 WSAs in the state. Another 37 are managed by the BLM.