Recently, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines introduced S. 2206 with the misleading title: “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act.” Daines’ legislation proposes removing existing protections on about 450,000 acres in the Big Snowies, Blue Joint, Sapphire, Middle Fork Judith and the West Pioneer wilderness study areas — the largest rollback of public land protections in Montana history.
The title isn’t the only thing misleading about Daines’ bill.
Despite claims that S. 2206 is the product of local input, Daines has not held any town hall meetings, public comment sessions, nor did he sponsor an inclusive process before introducing his legislation. He is only selectively meeting with those who already support the bill.
We — and many Montanans — are disappointed in this lack of outreach to all Montanans with a stake in these public lands. During our tenure working for the U.S. Forest Service, public input was the cornerstone of every major decision we made.
Even more disappointing, Daines continues to promote a misleading story about these WSAs, first presented during the recent Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on S. 2206. He says the USFS found none of the five WSAs included in his bill suitable for wilderness protection. This is simply not true. The Bitterroot National Forest found 28,500 acres of the Blue Joint WSA should be designated wilderness because of the area’s exceptional wilderness attributes.
Daines says he is acting on the recommendation of the USFS. If this is the case, why does his bill not designate the part of the Blue Joint that the USFS recommended for wilderness?
To make matters worse, the USFS repeated Daines’ false claims during their testimony to Congress. After spending over 30 years working for our national forests, we believe the stewards of our national forests have a duty to be truthful and transparent regarding our cherished public lands.
The agency’s testimony — which favored S. 2206 — didn't tell the whole story about the consequences of stripping these treasured landscapes of existing protections. By removing WSA status, our last few remaining wild backyards could — and would — change. Some could see expanded motorized use in sensitive habitats; others could see increased mining or oil and gas leasing.
The USFS also neglected to share the agency’s current thinking about management of these areas. The Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest’s new forest plan recommends the Big Snowies WSA for future wilderness designation. Also, the recently adopted Bitterroot Travel Plan closes the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs to uses that would erode the wilderness character in those places.
The USFS recommendations for WSAs used to justify S. 2206 are from the 1980s, over 30 years ago. Much has changed in Montana — and in America — since the 1980s. Back then, the USFS was under immense pressure to provide opportunities for oil and gas leasing or logging at the expense of other uses, including recreation. In the past 30 years, uses of our public lands have changed greatly as has our knowledge of natural resource and recreation management. Most importantly, the public is so much more engaged now than 30 years ago.
Today, Montana boasts a $7.1 billion recreation economy, dwarfing mining and logging in terms of contributions to our overall economy. Daines and the USFS conveniently leave all of this out of their testimony.
Montanans deserve the facts about how our public lands are managed. And they deserve an open and transparent process. Forest plan revision processes do just that. By allowing these processes to guide the future of these and all WSAs, all Montanans will have a voice. Not just those who Senator Daines chose to listen to.