A U.S. Forest Service official offered support to Sen. Jon Tester’s wilderness bill and Sen. Steve Daines’ wilderness study area removal act in a Capitol hearing on Wednesday.
Both Montana senators presented their legislation before the Senate Subcommittee on Forests, Public Lands and Mining. Republican Daines’ S. 2206 would remove the WSA designation from five Forest Service areas totaling 449,500 acres, opening them for motorized use. Democrat Tester’s S. 507 would add 79,000 acres of wilderness along the southwestern corner of Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex as well as two recreation areas for snowmobile and mountain bike activity.
Daines, who sits on the committee, welcomed Tester and Blackfoot outfitters Connie and Mack Long to the committee chambers before the testimony started. The Longs were attending to support Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act.
In his comments, Daines said releasing the five WSA’s in his Protect Public Use of Public Lands bill would end 40 years of congressional paralysis after the Forest Service was asked to review them in 1977.
“These are lands that have been studied by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and determined not suited for wilderness in their final plans,” Daines said. He claimed support from Montana elected officials, recreation groups, sportsmen and others for increasing recreational access.
Daines also praised the collaborative efforts that brought together Tester’s legislation, noting “it’s been agreed upon by timber stakeholders, wilderness advocates and outfitters.”
Tester told the committee that a coalition of local residents had already brought $19 million and 100 jobs for forest restoration to the Blackfoot-Clearwater region. The wilderness additions would complete their agreement.
“The timber harvest is well under way and the trail maps are printed,” Tester said. “It’s time to protect this landscape for future generations.”
National Forest System Associate Deputy Chief Glenn Casamassa testified in favor of both acts.
“We support the goals of this bill as well as the local collaborative process on which it is based,” Casamassa said of Tester’s bill. “It is consistent with longstanding management direction in the forest planning process.”
During questioning, Casamassa added that the Forest Service wanted to “take a longer view” about Tester’s proposed mountain biking and snowmobile areas. The bill includes a 3,800-acre recreation area aimed at mountain biking and a 2,200-acre winter snowmobiling area, both north of Ovando.
“We recognize the outdoor industry is a growing and expanding economic driver,” Casamassa said. “We want to lay out a very sustainable trail system in these areas, that takes into consideration ancillary improvements such as trailheads, restrooms, signage and the like in the long term.”
On Republican Daines’ bill, Casamassa said, “We support this release. Those WSAs have been studied and the recommendation was they would be released or not considered for wilderness designation. To date, none of the five have been recommended to Congress for wilderness designation.”
Daines’ bill would return to regular Forest Service management the West Pioneers, Sapphire, Middle Fork-Judith, Big Snowies and parts of the Blue Joint wilderness study areas.
However, current drafts of the Helena-Lewis and Clark and Bitterroot national forest plans do recommend wilderness designation for the Big Snowies and Blue Joint WSAs.
Congress passed a bill in 1988 resolving designations for all five areas Daines addresses, although President Ronald Reagan vetoed it. Numerous additional bills have addressed some or all of the areas, including an unsuccessful Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of Tester’s that would have settled status for the West Pioneers and part of the Sapphire WSAs.
Back in Montana, Daines’ bill, in particular, was drawing a lot of attention. On Wednesday, more than 200 people attended a Ravalli County Commission meeting that had to be moved to a county fairgrounds building because of the overflow. A large majority of the speakers criticized the commissioners’ support for Daines’ bill. The day before, the Granite County commissioners rescinded a December letter opposing S. 2206 and issued a new message in favor.
Montana state Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, authored the 2017 state bill that asked Congress to rescind protection on nine Forest Service WSAs, including the five Daines specified. On Wednesday, White asked Congress to keep the focus on restoring motorized access.
“Over time the historic uses once preserved have been incrementally removed from these areas and the forest health has diminished,” White wrote in an email. “Litigation over management of these areas has been costly to the agency and by releasing these areas it will allow for a public process for future management to proceed. Access to our public lands is so important and the release of these areas will create a path forward to protect and preserve public use of our public lands.”
Casamassa noted that all five areas were included in the Forest Services’ Inventoried Roadless Area designation, which would require extensive public process. National Forest travel plans and other laws would also govern what kinds of recreational activities would be allowed, even without the WSA designation.
Supporters of Tester’s bill also asked Congress to move along.
“Public lands are a resource that is so limited,” Mack Long wrote in an email after the hearing. “We have one opportunity and we have a very narrow window of time to step in and take actions that will protect these valuable landscapes. It’s our obligation to make sure my grandsons and their grandchildren have the same opportunity to experience wilderness. It’s up to us to hold our public lands together so that they have that opportunity.”
“We have a civic responsibility in the Blackfoot,” added Loren Rose, CEO of Pyramid Lumber. “We need to be good stewards of the land. The land has provided jobs for all 140 of Pyramid’s employees. We feel great commitment to the area, and addressing public lands on a landscape level just made a lot of sense to us a decade ago, and it still does today.”