Fight over Wilderness Study Areas ramping up toward November elections
Wilderness study areas were set aside for federal officials to study their suitability for wilderness. Though they’ve been studied, many of them remain under that designation and are managed like wilderness. That means motorized recreation is limited and extractive uses like logging and mining are off-limits.
The two Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation have called for the release of several study areas, arguing the move would allow better management of the lands and citing support of release from county commissioners. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte have introduced bills releasing five study areas managed by the Forest Service.
Gianforte went even further by introducing the Unlocking Public Lands Act, which would remove the designation from 24 additional areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management. A spokesman for Gianforte said the congressman plans to amend the bill to remove some WSAs that have been recommended for wilderness designation, which were included by error.
Several of the BLM areas included in Gianforte’s bill are in southwestern Montana. The Montana Wilderness Association and an organization called EcoFlight provided a media flyover of five of those areas on Monday — Axolotl Lakes, Centennial Mountains, East Fork Blacktail Deer Creek, Blacktail Mountains and the Ruby Mountains.
Travis Hall, Gianforte’s spokesman, said in an email that Gianforte heard input from county governments and other stakeholders on the issue, and that his office is scheduling meetings on the issue during Congress’ August recess.
“Greg has received substantial public comment,” Hall said. “As the bills are considered in the House, Greg is committed both to continuing to engage Montanans on the issue of restoring these lands to the active management of USFS and BLM and to ensuring Montanans have increased access to our public lands.”