Wilderness study areas talk aimed at gathering more public input, House candidate Williams says

By  - August 16, 2018 - Originally published in the Missoulian.

The future use of Wilderness Study Areas was the topic of a lively discussion at a roundtable in Missoula Wednesday hosted by Kathleen Williams, the Democrat vying to take Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s seat in the U.S. House in the November election.

Representatives of off-road vehicle user groups called for releasing the WSAs from wilderness restrictions while hunting and fishing advocates and others called for protecting them. Many participants agreed that there should be more public input.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 designated wilderness areas in the U.S., but also set aside Wilderness Study Areas, such as the 61,400-acre Blue Joint WSA in the Bitterroot range and 98,000 acres of the Sapphire Range south of Missoula. There are a total of 700,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana.

Williams said the Wilderness Act gave federal agencies 15 years to make recommendations on whether the study areas should be formally released or designated as official wilderness. Congress passed legislation to protect 1.4 million acres nationally as wilderness but release another 4 million acres, but President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill.

There are now 44 WSAs in Montana managed by the Bureau of Land Management; the U.S. Forest Service manages the seven others.

Gianforte has proposed two bills calling for the WSAs to be released for more uses. But critics have said he has moved without public input.

Gianforte invited 13 organizations to take part in a roundtable discussion Wednesday morning in Lewistown. 

Williams, a former state legislator, said the discussion she organized at the University of Montana was not designed as a campaign event. Instead, she said she wanted to make sure more voices on the issue were being heard.

Kevin Farron, the Montana coordinator for the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the last time the public had the opportunity to comment on WSAs was four decades ago.

“I’m an active public lands user, I’m 32 years old, and my voice has never been heard,” he said.

Mike Jeffords, the president of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, said the WSAs in the Bitterroot are a huge “thorn of contention among motorized users and quiet users.”

He said because trails weren’t built properly in the first place in areas in the Sapphire Range, some users damaged the natural landscape.

“There are many falsehoods spread about the (off-highway vehicle) community and how we were using these areas and how we were denigrating the property,” he said. “Because of what we believe is the Forest Service’s lack of understanding of how to build sustainable trails, this area was heavily eroded and heavily abused.”

Jeffords said if the WSAs are opened up to off-highway vehicles like ATVs and dirtbikes, and properly managed, they would be a “boon” to the Bitterroot economy.

“They would be a showcase for the rest of the nation,” he said. “I know I’m in enemy territory here, but those are the (risks) you take in life, and I’m willing to do it.

Williams reassured Jeffords he wasn’t considered an enemy. While she didn’t offer her own opinion on WSAs, she made a point of calling on people who fell on both sides of the issue.

Skip Kowalski of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Ben Horan of Mountain Bike Missoula and Adam Shaw of the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers all called for more transparent, collaborative public engagement and decision-making processes before anything happens with WSAs.

“The general consensus among hunting and angling groups is something needs to be done, but a unilateral approach to wiping (WSAs) out without public input is not the way to go about it and generally not the way Montanans do things,” Shaw said.

"In 1978 the elk population in Montana was 58,000, and today the population is well over 160,000,'' he said. "The hunting and fishing community is concerned about any impacts to land or water resources and the ability for those areas to be remote and roadless sanctuaries for elk and deer populations.”

“We’re not here to say none of the WSAs should be released,” Shaw said. But, he continued, “when we have delegates pushing legislation without any input or not holding hearings,” then the voice of the public is lost.

Horan also noted that more voices need to be heard.

“There are real attacks on the nature of public land, and in order to protect these resources that we all cherish, that takes a group effort,” Horan said. “I appreciate the dialogue of the 60 people in the room right now.”

Jeffords, meanwhile, said the issues were thoroughly discussed 40 years ago when the agencies made their recommendations and don't need more discussion today.

And state Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said wilderness advocates would allow the WSAs to continue to hang in limbo.

“There’s nothing to prevent folks from saying 40 years from now, we might know more,” he said. “I think we can maintain the wild culture of these lands without having them designated" as wilderness.

"We can allow access in these areas without destroying their integrity,'' he said. "I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. I don’t think you need to develop them, and nobody is advocating selling them off to private concerns.”

Others in the room noted that lands in Montana that are developed or open to motorized use are never returned to their true wild state, meaning Montana only has one chance to actually create new wilderness areas.

Mike Jarnevic of Missoula, a military veteran and wilderness advocate, said wilderness lands are an extraordinary American legacy.

“Once developed, they will never be in the same state and the nation will sadly be poorer for it,” he said.

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