Montana groups urge Gianforte for more public input on wilderness study areas, disagree on how

By  - August 16, 2018 - Originally published in the Billings Gazette.

LEWISTOWN — Wildlife groups are urging U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte to gather more public opinion before moving ahead with two bills to release 700,000 federal acres in Montana from wilderness consideration.

Gianforte, a Republican, assured representatives from the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation and others that there would be time for public input after the bills are passed. At issue are 29 areas that more than 30 years ago were studied for wilderness protections but neither recommended for the designation, nor cut loose from the study program. Several thousand acres studied and recommended for wilderness were excluded from the bills.

The first-term congressman said state lawmakers and county commissioners, frustrated by federal indecision on the fate of the study areas, asked him to act.

“Their message was clear: Congress needs to act because we’ve had public lands locked up for almost 40 years, and their message to me from the legislators and county commissioners led me to introduce the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act and also the Unlocking Public Lands act in March of this year,” Gianforte said. “The measures would restore public lands, which the U.S. Forest Service and BLM have determined are not suitable for wilderness, to active management and back to the agencies to determine what the local communities determine is right.”

That non-designation has made the study areas off limits to other land uses, ranging from new trails, to fire prevention, livestock grazing and logging. All of those uses would be up for discussion once the 29 areas lose wilderness study status. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land management would have to meet with the public before deciding what to do next, Gianforte said.

Gianforte told a dozen groups gathered to discuss his bills Wednesday that he would consider amending his legislation to require federal agencies to consult with the public.

But public participation after the bills become law was unacceptable to Amy Robinson of the Montana Wilderness Association. Robinson said more public comment is needed before the bills pass.

“There was not one public meeting on this subject and in fact this public meeting wasn’t really public,” Robinson said. The dozen groups represented at the Lewistown roundtable were there by invite. The meeting wasn’t announced to the general public before the end of the working day Monday.

“Congressman Gianforte, I am here today to simply ask you to withdraw these bills and start over with a more bipartisan, collaborative approach that involves the public process with diverse interests, and that means wilderness folks and that means horsemen and women, and hunters and anglers and backpackers and all kinds of folks.”

The Montana Wilderness Association has asserted that Gianforte’s approach will open the study areas to road development, mining and oil and gas exploration, including in areas where petroleum experts say development is highly unlikely. Robinson reiterated those concerns Wednesday.

Other groups represented at the meeting were the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Outdoor Alliance, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Outfitters and Guides, Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Montana Association of Counties, and Citizens for Balanced Use.

There were stakeholders who said Gianforte was on the right path. Mac Minard, of Montana Outfitters and Guides, said Gianforte had the order right, passing the bills and then starting the conversation about what to do with the land afterward.

“This simply will trigger a public process that has to take place,” Minard said. “So, release of the wilderness study area is the absolute first step. The mandatory follow-up steps are the local robust discussions that have to happen on the ground.”

Others comfortable with passing the bills included Todd Devlin of the Montana Association of Counties, Bob Lee of the Montana Stockgrowers and Kerry White of Citizens for Balanced Use and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Representatives of those groups said the wilderness study areas had become untended sources of noxious weeds and posed higher wildfire danger. The lack of roads into the area meant Montanans are physically unable to hike in and aren't able to enjoy the areas, the said.

Devlin, a Prairie County commissioner, said weeds in the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area near his community had become unmanageable.

“The biggest problem with the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area, it’s a problem with a lot of wilderness study areas, is noxious weeds. They’ve become petri dishes, petri dishes for noxious weeds. The BLM spent $128,000 last year and treated 148 acres. They didn’t even get 100 yards off the road.”

Nearly all groups united around the need for more public input, even while disagreeing about when the public should get to weigh in.

There was concern about community discussions already underway concerning the management of wilderness study areas, including the Big Snowy Mountains Wilderness Study Area just outside Lewistown. Members of the community testified that the town’s water supply was vulnerable to land use changes in the study area. They asked to be included in planning.

Robinson said the better path for the study areas was to address each one individually at the local level. Removing all areas from study area status was too extreme, she said. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers voiced similar concerns.

“We fully agree it’s time to take these out of wilderness study area,” said Doug Krings of BHA. “Sitting in that limbo for so long, nothing is happening. We don’t, however, agree with the broad-brush approach. We’d like a group of stakeholders to individually assess these, look at the old recommendations and try to come back to the table and try to find something that works for everybody.”

Other stakeholders questioned sticking to the recommendations of studies more than 30 years old. Montana has changed, said KT Miller, of Outdoor Alliance. The studies are older than she is.

“Most of those recommendations were made before I was born, and so as someone who was born and raised in Montana and lived and recreated in the state for my entire life, I know Montana has changed a lot in the last 30 years,” Miller said. “Many of those recommendations may be out of date.”

Miller was particularly concerned about the possibility of snowmobiles degrading backcountry skiing in the Centennial Mountains Wilderness Study area.

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