In 1977 the Montana Wilderness Study Act became law, creating the seven wilderness study areas (WSAs) that exist in Montana today. The deal was that within five years the U.S. Forest Service was supposed to evaluate these lands for wilderness character, and get back to Congress with a recommendation of whether or not individual WSAs met the criteria to be incorporated into the national wilderness preservation system. Congress would then vote on which areas should become official wilderness, and which should not, based on Forest Service recommendations.
Well, 1982 came and went and that never happened. Now, 35 years later, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, with S.2206, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, has finally picked up the ball and is ready to carry it across the goal line.
Why should we support S.2206? The first reason is that many of the WSAs were designated based on the political maneuvering of preservationist groups, rather than wilderness character.
Take, for instance, the Ten Lakes WSA near Eureka. Does the Ten Lakes WSA have some wilderness character? Definitely. Does the Ten Lakes WSA meet the criteria for wilderness as defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act? Absolutely not! The WSA contains old logging roads, timber harvest units and historic mining activity. Due to these, and many other factors, the Forest Service evaluation of wilderness character in 1975 recommended that the area not be considered for wilderness designation. Yet, somehow it got included into the MWSA in 1977. You tell me what happened.
Second, if the bill becomes law, forest management in wilderness study areas isn’t going to change much. These areas are not going to be clearcut, opened to mining or overrun by ATVs. Fear-mongering by preservationists is trying to make people believe that the bill will destroy pristine wilderness areas, and that is simply not true.
The core of the debate over WSAs is recreation access. The people in favor of S.2206 would like to see multiple-use recreation continue in these areas. The people opposed to S.2206 want to exclude all other recreation groups except themselves.
Personally, when I am hiking in a WSA in the summer, it doesn’t bother me one bit that people snowmobile in the area in the winter, and when I am snowmobiling in the winter, it doesn’t bother me that others mountain bike in the area in the summer. Why would it bother me that other people are enjoying the same awesome piece of Montana in different ways, at different times of the year? Unfortunately, my "live and let live" attitude is not shared by the preservationists who oppose S.2206.
Whether or not to support S.2206 is pretty simple. If you are someone who values your freedom to access Montana’s public lands, but also respects the rights of others to enjoy those same public lands however they choose, then support it. If you are the type who can’t stand the thought of somebody snowmobiling through a meadow you like to hike to in the summertime, oppose it.