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Gianforte Introduces Legislation to Unlock Public Lands, Increase Public Access

March 1, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Congressman Greg Gianforte today introduced legislation, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act and the Unlocking Public Lands Act, that will increase access to public lands, empower local communities, and do the work Congress should have taken care of nearly 40 years ago.

The bills implement recommendations by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to release more than 690,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in Montana that the agencies found not suitable for wilderness designation.

“Nearly 700,000 acres of Montana’s public lands have been in limbo for as long as 40 years, stuck in a perpetual study that was actually completed years ago. Congress didn’t act then like it should have, and it’s about time we did,” Gianforte said. “Unlocking these lands and returning them to Forest Service and BLM management will increase Montanans’ access to their public lands.”

U.S. Senator Steve Daines, who introduced the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act in the Senate, welcomed Gianforte’s action.

“Thanks to Greg for introducing the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act in the House. I’ve heard from county commissioners, outdoor recreationists, Montana families and the Montana state legislature — they are tired of Washington, D.C. paralysis locking up access to their public lands,” said Daines. “It’s time Washington, D.C. listen to Montanans and keep public lands in public hands.”

Gianforte introduced legislation to unlock Montana’s public lands and increase public access after hearing from local leaders, state legislators, key stakeholders, and impacted communities who endorsed the decades-old USFS and BLM recommendations.

Statements of Support:

Hans McPherson, President of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation: “Our members appreciate that there is a renewed focus on the management of federal lands, especially with regard to Wilderness Study Areas. MFBF supports the release of all Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) that have been designated as WSAs for more than five years but have failed to reach wilderness status….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.” Click here to view his full statement of support.

Greg Chilcott, Public Lands Chairman of the Montana Association of Counties and Ravalli County Commissioner: “Regarding Wilderness Study Areas, we urge Congress to take action on this long-overdue issue and release those lands determined through agency analysis as not suitable for wilderness designation. The studies have been done, the reports have been filed, and recommendations have gone unnoticed for years while a failure to act has crippled federal agencies’ ability to manage these public lands.” Click here to view his full statement of support.

Bryan Mussard, President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association: “Areas that have designed Wilderness or Wilderness Study areas create a unique set of management challenges. These designations place restrictions on a number of practices and can inhibit proper vegetation management, controlling noxious weeds and initial attack on range fires. MSGA and MPLC are therefore requesting legislation be drafted that would clearly and promptly release wilderness study areas that do not meet the wilderness criteria and return them to multiple use management.” Click here to view his full statement of support.

Beaverhead County Commissioners: “Beaverhead County strongly supports legislation to finally deal with WSAs (wilderness study areas). Beaverhead County for years has been asking Congress and the federal agencies to address this critical land use issue…. When reviewing lands within Beaverhead County being considered for future wilderness designation, of paramount importance to our residents, are the Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) that have undergone analysis by the BLM and Forest Service with the analysis resulting in a finding of ‘Not Recommended for Wilderness.’ These areas are still Wilderness Study Areas not because they have outstanding wilderness characteristics, but because Congress has not acted and removed the WSA designation it imposed by legislation going on 30-40 years ago.” Click here to view their full statement of support.

Garfield County Commissioners: “The Garfield County Commission Board supports Congressman Gianforte’s Bill to consider removing Wilderness Study Areas that are under BLM control.  These study areas should have all the information that is needed from the past decades.” Click here to view their full statement of support.

Madison County Commissioners: “Madison County strongly supports legislation to address wilderness study areas (WSAs) in Montana. If WSAs have been studied by the BLM and/or Forest Service, we urge you to support their recommendation and make a determination on the wilderness status of these areas.” Click here to view their full statement of support.

Phillips County Commissioners: “Thanks for introducing a bill that looks at WSAs. Phillips County has long supported removal of a WSA if it does not meet the criteria for them. The county’s Land Resource Plan was adopted and finalized July 23, 2012….We also strongly demand compliance with the law prescribing the time frame for an area to be held as a Wilderness Study Area. At the time that the study area is to be designated as wilderness, it must be so designated or if not, then it must be returned to its previous state.” Click here to view their full statement of support.

Powell County Commissioners: “Following comments the board voted unanimously to ask Congress to release all Wilderness Study Areas deemed not suitable for wilderness. This includes both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.” Click here to view their full statement of support.

Prairie County Commissioners: “This is a letter in support from the Board of Prairie County Commissions on your proposed bill to get Wilderness Study Areas out of limbo. Prairie County is the location of the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area (WSA) that is almost 45,000 acres. It borders the north side of the Yellowstone River.  It has been a Wilderness Study Area for close to 40 years and it is time for Congress to act.… We whole heartedly support Congressman Gianforte's efforts to reduce the size of the Terry Badlands WSA or get rid of it completely.” Click here to view their full statement of support.

Valley County Commissioners: “In Valley County, the Bitter Creek WSA (59,600 acres) was found not suitable for wilderness designation; but has been maintained in Wilderness Study status since then. The Valley County Commissioners recommend that Congress enact BLM’s recommendation to release the Bitter Creek WSA from Wilderness Study status. This is consistent with Valley County policy since the original wilderness study in 1979, and also mirrors MACO policy.” Click here to view their full statement of support.


Background on Wilderness Study Areas:

Congress designated Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in the 1970s. The legislation instructed the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to study the areas and determine whether they should be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

By the early 1980s, USFS and BLM made their recommendations to Congress. All recommendations for the WSAs were to designate the areas as non-wilderness or partial non-wilderness. Congress granted itself the responsibility to act on the recommendations from the USFS as well as BLM and release the WSAs.

Nearly 40 years later, Congress has not acted on the USFS and BLM findings.

Montana Wilderness Facts and Findings:

  • 16,893,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands
  • 8,060,382 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands
  • 6,290,437 acres designated as roadless areas in Forest Service lands
  • 3,443,038 acres of designated Wilderness
  • 1,104,874 acres in Wilderness Study Areas

Background on the Unlocking Public Lands Act:

The Unlocking Public Lands Act, H.R. 5149, would release all or portions of 24 Wilderness Study Areas, comprising over 240,000 acres, that the Bureau of Land Management found not suitable for wilderness designation by 1980.

The Unlocking Public Lands Act may be viewed and downloaded here.

Background on the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act:

The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, H.R. 5148, would release nearly 450,000 acres that the U.S. Forest Service has found not suitable for wilderness designation in the early 1980s. The locations and approximate areas to be released include:

  • 151,000 acres comprising the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area
  • 32,500 acres within the Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area
  • 94,000 acres comprising the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area
  • 81,000 acres comprising the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area
  • 91,000 acres comprising the Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area

The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act may be viewed and downloaded here.