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A proposed bill to release federal roadless and wilderness study areas to local management and development is gathering lengthy lists of supporters and opponents, even though it’s stalled in Congress.

California Rep. Kevin McCarthy authored H.R. 1582, which has 41 co-sponsors including Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg. It had a subcommittee hearing on July 26, 2011, but has yet to be marked up or voted upon.

“The federal government has locked up 43 million acres of federal land in so-called Wilderness Study Areas and Inventoried Roadless Areas, which the government decided weren’t suitable for wilderness,” Rehberg said of the bill in an email Wednesday. “This land is still treated like wilderness, which not only restricts public access but limits our ability to manage the land to keep forests healthy for wildlife. Loosening restrictions on some of this land not only opens the land for public use and enjoyment, but improves the habitat for deer, elk and fish.”

The bill includes about 5.5 million acres in Montana. Most of the lands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

In February, the Montana Wildlife Federation launched an ad campaign protesting the bill. Rehberg’s office responded with a news release on March 6, listing support from the National Rifle Association, Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, and the Missoula SnoGoers, along with six other state and national groups.

On Wednesday, a coalition of 100 Montana businesses issued a letter to Rehberg and Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester opposing the bill.

“We think conservation of fish and wildlife is not partisan,” Trout Unlimited’s Corey Fisher said during a conference call with some of the business owners. “We hope all elected officials understand conservation of roadless land is good for fish and wildlife and a broad array of sportsmen’s interests.”

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Both sides make arguments that the land designation affects Montana’s outdoors economy. Stan Spencer of the Missoula SnoGoers wrote to Rehberg that it took courage to sponsor such a bill in an election year.

“There is a social and economic impact attached to eliminating multiple use in these de facto wilderness areas that impacts all of us either directly or indirectly,” Spencer wrote. “Wilderness advocates such as the Sierra Club are opposed to H.R. 1581 because it reopens public land to be shared by multiple users instead of locking it up for a select ‘me-only’ user group.”

Tony Bynum, owner of Glacier Impressions Gallery in Browning and an opponent of the bill, noted he had a contract with a Montana state tourism promotion agency to photograph some of the roadless areas targeted by H.R. 1581.

“The state is featuring this as one place where people can be in a setting that’s relatively intact,” Bynum said. “These photos will be used on a national and global scale to promote Montana. If this bill were to pass, we would eliminate those opportunities.”

The bill has also split hunting groups. Gun Owners of America vice chairman Tim Macy claimed “radical environmentalists have started pretending to be hunters and anglers,” adding “Sportsmen, hunters and anglers know that to enjoy hunting and fishing, you’ve got to have access to public lands and that’s something these groups are fighting to destroy.”

Tim Aldrich of the Montana Wildlife Federation countered that “Science backs up the fact that backcountry roadless areas are necessary for long hunting seasons, mature bucks and bulls, and robust populations of wildlife. “Put simply, this bill is a raw deal for hunters and anglers.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation initially supported the bill, but withdrew its approval last September.

“The roadless-area impacts of H.R. 1581 include too many unknown risks for us to remain supportive,” Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president David Allen wrote of the decision. But he added “We believe the proponents of H.R. 1581 are well intentioned and have restarted a necessary debate on best designations for public lands. … Neither this bill nor the status quo are acceptable paths to resolving the problem.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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