Conservation groups push back against Daines bill to withdraw wilderness study areas

Conservation groups were quick to respond this week to Sen. Steve Daines’ proposed legislation to eliminate protections for five wilderness study areas and release them to what he described as wider public use.

However, opponents of the measure see Daines’ so-called Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act as a divisive, top-down approach to legislation that represents the largest revocation of protected public lands in state history.

“With this bill, Sen. Daines would sabotage the wild legacy that Montanans expect to pass onto our children – all without any public meetings or town hall,” said Ben Gabriel, executive director of Montana Wilderness Association. “Decisions involving future management of these areas must include input gathered from communities closest to these areas, while also recognizing these public lands belong to all Americans.”

In a press call on Thursday, Daines announced his intention to release five wilderness study areas spanning 450,000 acres in an effort to address what he described as congressional inaction. The WSAs were set aside by Congress in 1977 for study as potential wilderness.

That designation never came. The original law allotted just five years for study, and Daines believes the time has come to release the land for wider public use.

“Once this bill was enacted, it would remove the study designation for those acreages, but then continue the public input and planning process where new uses could then be considered,” Daines said. “You still have the same environmental analysis, the same public process, but now the Forest Service would know it’s no longer in a study area.”

Conservation advocates have blasted the bill, saying it ignores a range of interests and usurps the state’s ability to find collaborative solutions amid disagreement on the management of public lands.

The five wilderness study areas identified in Daines’ bill include the West Pioneers, Blue Joint, Sapphire, Middle Fork Judith and Big Snowies. Combined, the areas span roughly 450,000 acres.

“It’s puzzling and disappointing that Sen. Daines thinks that removing protection for these wilderness study areas is going to really benefit Montana hunters and anglers,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We need Congress to fully fund public land conservation, trail maintenance and access, and not waste their time and our money undoing protections for lands.”