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Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, addresses the Condon Community Center during a presentation for the American Lands Council on moving federal public lands to state or local control. 

Advocates for releasing Montana’s wilderness study areas to multiple use argued at a state legislative hearing that 40 years was long enough to wait for a decision.

But those in favor of wilderness protection pointed Monday to several errors in Rep. Kerry White’s House Joint Resolution 9, and claimed the lands had more value for outdoor recreation than timber harvest.

“After 40 years, I would like to see them released back to multiple use,” White, R-Bozeman, said of seven wilderness study areas originally mapped in the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977. “I’m a strong proponent of active forest management.”

Although the bill claimed “almost one million acres” were left in “legal limbo” since Congress passed its measure, its own enumeration of the seven areas totaled 663,000 acres.

The House Natural Resources Committee heard about two hours of testimony and questions Monday on the measure. Opponents significantly outnumbered proponents at the podium.

“There are some factual errors and statements that simply aren’t true,” said John Mumma, who led the Missoula-based U.S. Forest Service Region 1 in the 1980s. “It says the Secretary of Agriculture never acted on recommendations. That’s not true.”

The wilderness study areas in the 1977 bill came out of lengthy negotiations on the fate of Montana’s roadless lands in the 1970s and '80s, Mumma said. That led up to a 1988 bill designating new wilderness and releasing other areas, including places designed for mineral exploration and timber.

He recalled the U.S. Senate passed the bill by a vote of 64-2, with the U.S. House agreeing 202-144. But the legislation went to President Ronald Reagan’s desk in the final days of the 1988 Senate election, when Montana Democratic Sen. John Melcher was in a tight race with then-Billings County Commissioner Conrad Burns. Reagan pocket-vetoed the bill, and Burns won the seat.

“That’s the reason wilderness didn’t get introduced earlier – Congress changed its mind,” Mumma said. “This has been playing out for a long time.”

White’s supporters noted the 1977 bill specifically gave the Agriculture Department five years to make that decision. Wilderness study areas have potential to receive greater protection under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

“I expect you’re going to hear the standard hoopla from the obstructionists and the Chicken Littles, about how this will destroy the environment and animals are going to die,” bill proponent Steve Slagle said, before being warned to be more respectful. “But the issue here is the law of the land.”

Slagle called the creation of wilderness study areas “an end-run around the Wilderness Act,” and approved of having the Legislature tell Congress to include sunset provisions on laws that don’t complete their purpose in a timely manner.

Montana Petroleum Association representative Jessica Sena added her group had a policy that any public lands not preserved as a national park or wilderness should be open for multiple use. That ranges from motorized recreational access to commercial extraction of minerals, energy or timber.

“We oppose reducing the availability of access by any method or for any purpose,” Sena said. “These lands should be open for maximum use.”

Bitterroot Valley resident Kirk Thompson argued the two wilderness study areas (WSAs) near his home had thrived while land values had increased 10 times since their designation. Federal wilderness areas qualify by their outstanding scenery or natural quality, as well as opportunities for solitude. Mechanized activity, including bike and motorized access, typically is not allowed. Wilderness study areas are required to be maintained in the condition present when they are designated, which limits many development opportunities.

“There’s little or no opportunity for profitable timber harvest in those two WSAs,” Thompson said, referring to the Blue Joint and Sapphire areas on the western side of the valley. “But they do have natural beauty, abundant wildlands, and plenty of trails.”

House joint resolutions don’t have force of law, but serve as letters to Congress expressing the state government’s wishes. In addition to calling for the release of the seven WSAs created in the 1977 act, White’s resolution also asked Congress to “release all wilderness study areas and implement the concept of multiple use(.)” The U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees another 39 WSAs totaling about 450,000 acres.

“The sponsor certainly knows how to strike a nerve,” Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said of White’s resolution. Noting that the national Outdoor Retailer trade show recently announced intentions to leave Utah over that state’s governor’s opposition to new national monument designations, she asked if White’s bill raised similar hostility to public lands.

“I do,” replied Bozeman outdoor gear sales representative Chris Ennis. “The modern economy isn’t driven by extractive industry. We’re trying to attract the best talent … and we want to be seen as a place that’s friendly to outdoor recreation. It’s sustainable. It’s going to last a really long time. And when we introduce bills like this, it doesn’t make us look very forward-thinking in our land management.”

Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, asked Ennis for maps documenting the claim that the outdoor industry contributed 64,000 jobs and $5.8 million to the state’s economy. He also inquired about the difference between wilderness study areas and other possible public land designations, asking “is one non-use and the other multiple-use?”

“Wilderness is not a non-use,” replied testifier Chris Marchion. To the full committee, he said “If you want to send a signal about resolving wilderness study areas, fine, but make sure it’s a constructive, factual representative of the interests of all Montanans.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.