In 1977 Congress passed the Montana Wilderness Study Act (MWSA). This act identified nine areas in the state of Montana that were to be studied for their potential to be recommended to Congress as wilderness areas. The Forest Service was directed to evaluate those WSAs for their suitability for wilderness designation, which they dutifully completed in 1985 and reported to Congress as directed by the MWSA.
Unfortunately, Congress, in an apparent state of rigor mortis, has refused to act on the 1985 Forest Service recommendations for the Montana WSAs. For the past 33 years Congress has done absolutely nothing! This refusal by Congress to comply with the provisions of their own act has created a horrible mess, generated dozens of lawsuits, and created bitter acrimony among individuals and groups who hold different views on public land management issues.
Two of the areas identified for study in the 1977 MWSA are contained wholly or partially in the Bitterroot National Forest. The Sapphire WSA, totaling about 97,000 acres, straddles the boundary between the Bitterroot National Forest and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest along the Sapphire Crest east of Darby. Some 37,500 acres of the Sapphire WSA are contained in the Bitterroot National Forest. The Blue Joint WSA, consisting of about 64,000 acres, lies in the upper reaches of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River west of Darby.
The 1985 Forest Service report to Congress, mandated by the MWSA, concluded that none of the Sapphire WSA was suitable for wilderness, and that 36,500 acres of the Blue Joint WSA was similarly unsuitable for wilderness. The report concluded that 27,500 acres of the Blue Joint WSA should be recommended to Congress for wilderness designation. The suitable portion of the Blue Joint WSA was identified as a recommended wilderness area (RWA) in the 1987 Bitterroot National Forest Land Management Plan.
In 2015, the Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan prohibited all motorized and mountain bike entry to their portions of the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs, including those areas that are unsuitable for wilderness designation. This action creates de facto wilderness in areas that do not meet the requirements for wilderness as specified in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
In December of 2017, Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines introduced a bill to the Senate titled “The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act” (S. 2206). This act would release five Montana WSAs or portions thereof that have been determined to be unsuitable for wilderness designation: Something that should have happened more than 30 years ago. Those WSAs or portions thereof that are suitable for recommendation for wilderness status will remain unaffected by this act and will remain as RWAs specified in individual forest plans.
Senator Daines’ bill isn’t about whether or not you advocate for more or less wilderness in Montana. It is about preserving public access to public lands that are not suitable for wilderness designation. More than that, it’s about Congress cleaning up a mess that they themselves created through their refusal to implement their own laws.
Environmental zealots are screeching that Daines’ bill will remove “protections” from the released areas and permit “development” of those areas. That’s simply not true: Released areas will be managed as inventoried roadless areas (IRAs) with all of the “protections” associated with IRAs, and “development” in the usual sense of the word is not permitted anywhere on public land.
We are gratified that Montana has at least one congressman who is willing to step outside the status quo in Washington, D.C., and exercise his constitutionally mandated responsibilities. We, the undersigned, unequivocally support Senator Daines’ bill.