Montana’s wilderness study areas (WSAs) are exceptional places to find what all of us in Montana love: the rugged outdoors, abundant wildlife and a place to get away. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines' bill to remove the WSA designation from five U.S. Forest Service areas in Montana does nothing to change that or how these areas are currently managed.
What it does do is release these areas, which have never been recommended for wilderness designation in any final agency plan, to be managed under current forest plans.
The existing travel plans will remain in place and no new activities will take place. The areas are still inventoried roadless areas (IRA) and they will be subject to all protections provided by the 2001 Roadless Rule. To quote the USFS: “The 2001 Roadless Rule establishes prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands. The intent of the 2001 Roadless Rule is to provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System in the context of multiple-use management.” There will be no condominiums built in these areas.
The Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977 (MWSA) required the Forest Service to evaluate nine USFS areas and determine whether the areas met the criteria for wilderness designation set forth in the 1964 Wilderness Act and report back to Congress within five years Congress could legislate those findings.
Congress attempted to pass legislation in 1988 that inflated these findings by hundreds of thousands of acres that were not recommended for wilderness based on the agency’s findings. Ultimately, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the legislation because he recognized the imbalance of additional wilderness in places that the agency did not recommend as suitable in the first place.
During this time frame, recreational uses in the WSAs were to continue at current levels. The designation didn’t seem threatening because historic uses, such as snowmobiling, off-highway vehicles (OHV), mountain biking and grazing were permitted to continue. The quality of those landscapes did not diminish, and recreational users were able to enjoy their favorite way of getting out in the woods.
Fast-forward to now. Hundreds of miles of trails for mountain bikes and OHVs and hundreds of thousands of acres of snowmobile access have been lost within these areas because of court decisions that have driven agency decisions.
Currently in the Bitterroot, mountain bikers, OHV and snowmobile groups have gone to court to try to maintain the access they were permitted to have under the law in 1977. While these users continue to lose access to their favorite places, the forest service continued to reaffirm their original recommendations as recently as 2009. So here we are.
We need to move beyond the courts and remove the designation for these five areas that did not meet wilderness criteria of the 1964 Wilderness Act. We need to allow the forest planning process, with its required public participation, to guide the way to determine what activities are suitable across the landscape — not politics.
The rhetoric being used by many is irresponsible and undermines all the work that we could do when we sit down with all interests and the USFS to work through the public planning process. We all will have a say in what future management of our land looks like; which can include more motorized and mountain bike recreation, and more wilderness.
I look forward to supporting all those interests when we can sit down and work together finding solutions once the WSA designation is removed from these five areas.
Russ Ehnes is vice president of the Montana Trail vehicle Riders Association and president of the Great Falls Trail Bike Riders Association.
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