Montana Senator Steve Daines is introducing a bill that would remove management restrictions on three Wilderness Study Areas, saying the change would increase public access and improve management to cut wildfire risk.
The three WSAs included in the "Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act" are the Middle Fork of the Judith, and the Hoodoo Mountain WSA and the Wales Creek WSA, both in Powell County.
Wilderness Study Areas were originally proposed decades ago to allow for consideration of additional wilderness areas on federal lands, with some being deemed "unsuitable" for wilderness. But critics have said the tracts, which are often on Bureau of Land Management acreage, prevent access by sportsmen and other public lands users, and create "de facto" wilderness. Environmental interests have argued the WSAs should be protected by being finalized as wilderness areas, a step which requires Congressional approval.
“After working with local stakeholders and county commissioners and looking at the science, I’m glad to introduce a bill that would enhance sportsmen opportunities and access, help restore wildlife habitats, and decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” Daines said in a prepared statement released to MTN News.
“For decades, land managers have been forced to decrease public access and unable to use critical conservation tools to manage these acres according to resource conditions and local input because of congressional inaction. Within the past two years, following a multi-year collaborative process with robust public comment, and using the best available science and spanning multiple Administrations, these areas were deemed unsuitable for wilderness management once again. Now it’s past time we respond to this locally-led planning direction and release them to general management of public lands.”
The Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek WSAs comprise over 11,000 acres each in the Garnet Mountains, with Daines pointing out they were deemed "unsuitable for wilderness". Daines notes BLM has raised concerns about the fire risk from heavy mountain pine beetle infestation in those tracts.
The Middle Fork Judith WSA is 81,000 acres and was also recently deemed "unsuitable for wilderness" during a review by the Forest Service.
Daines points out all of the lands would remain federally owned, with U.S.F.S saying the Middle Fork Judith WSA will retain Roadless Area protections. The two BLM areas would also retain protection under existing land management plans.
19-local leaders and stakeholder groups have expressed support for the changes.