BOZEMAN – Representative Greg Gianforte has introduced two bills to Congress that would eliminate close to 700,000 acres of Montana land as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs).
Back in the 1970’s, certain wildlands were designated as WSAs as a way of protecting the area without solely classifying it as wilderness. According to the Montana Wilderness Association, 44 areas in the state are classified as WSAs and are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
"The Wilderness Study Areas were not going to be with us forever, but that Congress would do its job and make a decision on all of the recommendations and work that was done,” said BLM employee Rick Waldrup.
Gianforte hopes to make these lands more accessible. He says if his two bills pass, the BLM and U.S.F.S will be able to designate the next steps for 700,000 acres of land, whether that be mining, oil drilling, logging, or only motor vehicle use.
"Well, these wilderness study areas have placed thousands of acres of land in limbo for almost forty years. So, when I got a request from the state legislature and then letters from county commissioners I knew I had to act to increase public access to our public lands,” said Gianforte.
"Absolutely it could cause a problem. If we went and looked today at some of the unspoiled country left in the lower 48, I think. And certainly a lot of these areas deserve some protection,” said Waldrup.
Others disagree with Gianforte; Beaverhead County Commissioners addressed a letter to him stating:
"The Beaverhead County Commissioners believe that the over 10 million acres of wilderness and national parks within one day’s drive of Dillon are ample in meeting ecological, environmental, and human needs for wilderness in this region. We therefore urge the agencies to forego an agenda of adding acres to wilderness for the sake of adding acres to wilderness."
The bills have made it through the initial hearing and will be put through a markup before landing on the House floor. If the bills are passed, 29 WSAs would lose protection. Gianforte says all of the areas of land he hopes to release from protection have been recommended by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service as non-suitable for wilderness.