A legislator known for supporting motorized access to public lands has introduced a resolution asking Congress to un-designate Montana’s wilderness study areas.
Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, submitted House Joint Resolution 9 on Friday. It calls for dropping nearly 1 million acres from possible federal wilderness consideration. Wilderness study areas in Montana exist mainly on U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management public lands.
If enacted, the resolution would ask Congress “to enact legislation to release all wilderness study areas identified and specified in the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977.”
It also asks Congress to manage those places according to the Forest Management Act of 1897 “to improve and protect the forest … for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.”
In the resolution’s justifications, White claimed in the resolution that Montana’s economy was hurt “by recent management policies, resulting in the closure of 22 sawmills since 1990 and causing the loss of over 2,100 primary industry jobs and over $50 million in wages.” He added that Congress’ inaction was wasting forest assets, reducing forest road construction and “severely (harming) agriculture, timber harvesting, and multiple-use interests.”
White did not return phone messages requesting comment on his measure. A longtime leader of Citizens for Balanced Use, White recently represented the American Lands Council on a tour promoting the return of federal lands to state management or ownership.
Joint resolutions must be passed by both the state House of Representatives and Senate, but do not need the governor’s signature. They express an opinion of state government, but do not have any force of law.
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Of the roughly 1 million acres designated as wilderness study areas, White specifically mentioned seven. They were 151,000 acres in the West Pioneers, 61,000 acres in Blue Joint, 94,000 acres in the Sapphire Mountains, 34,000 acres at Ten Lakes, 81,000 acres on the Middle Fork Judith River, 91,000 acres in the Big Snowy Mountains, and 151,000 acres of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn.
The resolution drew harsh responses from groups favoring wilderness.
"Rep. White's resolution is more than a radical wish-list; it's an affront to all Montanans who have worked for years to find collaborative, place-based solutions to public land management issues across the state,” Montana Wilderness Association conservation director John Todd wrote in an email. “Montanans know the best way to resolve our treasured wilderness study areas is by working together, not by issuing top-down edicts out of Helena."
Outdoor gear sales representative Chris Ennis added the move would be bad for the state’s recreation industry. Recent studies show the state’s outdoor economy supports 64,000 jobs and $6 billion in economic activity.
“Bills like this are a direct threat to that livelihood,” said Ennis, a member of the industry group Montana Outdoor Alliance. “I see two problems. First, it’s not the state’s business to do this – these are federal designations. And second, getting rid of all wilderness study areas is as stupid as saying we want all these areas to be wilderness. We need to complete the studies.”
White in his justifications noted that the 1977 federal law creating the study areas called for those reviews to be completed within five years. That has led to lawsuits over what uses are appropriate, burdens on court systems and “wide swings in executive branch philosophy regarding the administration of these lands … costing the public millions of dollars as forest assets burn and deteriorate and as investments in forest road construction and improvements are being deliberately destroyed.”
The legislation has its first hearing on Monday.