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Blue Joint WSA

The Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area is on the Montana/Idaho border in Ravalli County. 

Courtesy of the Montana Wilderness Society

There have been so many letters and articles regarding Senator Daines’ Bill releasing less than half the acres in Montana Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) it’s hard to know where to start, so lets start with some facts.

The bill establishing these areas was passed in 1977 with the provisions that the Forest Service would evaluate the areas for wilderness classification and then Congress would act based on the Forest Service recommendations.

Each forest that had a WSA evaluated the areas, I believe during the forest planning process in the 1980’s, and made decisions to recommend a little over half the acres for formal wilderness classification by an act of Congress. The less than half of the remaining acres were not recommended for wilderness. All million plus acres in the WSAs as well as many more acres had been inventoried earlier as “roadless” in the “roadless” area review and evaluation (RARE 1). There was another RARE in the earlier 1980’s known as RARE 2.

The forest planning process where the WSAs were evaluated was an intensive public involvement process with significant public participation. If the evaluation took place outside the planning process there was also extensive public participation. The WSAs were often managed allowing traditional public uses to continue like snowmobiling, motorized and mechanized trail use. These uses were stopped after litigation by environmental groups. Snowmobile use may be allowed on certain areas but for the most part these WSAs are being managed as “de-facto” wilderness which has made some pro wilderness groups quite happy and content, and I would feel the same way.

Now Senator Daines enters the picture with a bill releasing less than half of the acres in WSA status and they are the same acres the Forest Service recommended for non wilderness status in the 1980s. He has to be aware of the public involvement activity that has occurred regarding the earlier evaluation of these areas. Rather than repeat that costly and time consuming process he contacted the elected officials in the impacted counties to get a formal response. I would imagine he believes that since these people represent the majority of the voters in their county, their support or objection would reflect the majority opinion in the county.

We do not own a snowmobile, ATV, or motorized trail bike and our favorite mode of transportation on trails is our feet, but I am quite familiar with processes — those that are efficient and those that are not. I read statements in letters where people that are opposed to Daines bill believe they represent the majority in Ravalli County and I have to chuckle as I have not seen any ballots regarding this issue. I definitely do not support all the decisions our commissioners make but they do represent the majority or they wouldn’t get elected.

Another letter written by a famous member of Friends of the Bitterroot caught my eye when he wrote about the Bitterroot Forest as a pie and inferred that groups supporting Daines’ bill wanted more than a fair share of the “pie.” This one got me to thinking about balance of uses.

I was a forest supervisor for 11 years and balance was pretty important to me. I am a strong supporter of wilderness and was involved with decisions regarding wilderness management for more than a million acres on each of the two forests on which I worked. I did some research on the Bitterroot Forest and came up with the following. Total Forest acres is almost 1.6 million. The breakdown is as follows: designated wilderness 743,000 acres—48 percent; inventoried roadless—407,482 acres—26 percent (the WSA acres of 101,974 are included); Lands suitable for roading and timber harvest—390,800 acres—26 percent. You use your own math and philosophy to determine if this is balance.

Some other interesting facts about the Bitterroot Forest are: road miles in Montana—3054, Idaho—81; trail miles in wilderness—766; non wilderness—1052.

Did you know the number one use of the National Forests in the Nation is “driving for pleasure”?

I checked with the Bitterroot Forest folks about plans for their portion of the Sapphire WSA and the 35,000 acres of the Blue Joint WSA scheduled for release if the bill passes. Those acres will continue to be managed as roadless under the 2001 Roadless Rule and there are no plans for road building or timber harvest. Also, there has never been any interest regarding oil and gas exploration.

I respect and will defend the rights all of you have to write letters and demonstrate in a peaceful manner. I just happen to disagree with you on this particular issue and with this letter I am exercising mine.

– Veto J “Sonny” LaSalle, Hamilton