Montana Elected Officials Say Poll Opposing WSA Reductions Are Misleading
Two members of Montana’s Congressional delegation have criticized a recent poll saying the state opposes the removal of some of the Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) being outlined in legislation that would expand public use and access.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines took aim at the survey from the University of Montana’s “Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative” that claims public opinion in the Treasure State is opposed to the reduction of WSA areas.
“The only poll I care about is what folks in impacted communities want,” Gianforte told Montana Public Radio. “And I’ve heard clearly from county commissioners, local officials, members of impacted communities, the entire Montana state Legislature, which passed a resolution that support the measures I’ve introduced to increase public access by restoring these lands back to the Forest Service and BLM for multiple use.”
“That’s one example where the people of Montana have spoken and I’ve taken action based on it,” Gianforte said.
In March, Gianforte announced plans for two bills that would release nearly 700,000 acres of WSA in Montana on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands.
The Congressman argued the lands have been tied up for decades. Montana’s legislature passed a resolution in 2017 calling for the dissolution of the WSAs.
“Forty years is long enough,” State Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman) said at the time. “Some of these people are afraid that we’re going to have industrial complexes in these areas. But if these are released, they’ll go through a formal planning process. So it’s not like we’re releasing them into anything that won’t have public involvement.”
Daines has also pushed for re-opening the public lands for multiple-use, such as logging, grazing, and motorized access.
“As a fifth-generation Montanan and avid outdoorsman, I understand how important public lands are to Montanans,” Daines said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on his bill in February. “After 40 years of inaction from Congress, it is time to unlock our public lands and return them to the people of Montana.”
Daines’ bill, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, would open five of Montana’s WSAs–Big Snowies, the Middle Fork Judith, the West Pioneer, the Blue Joint, and the Sapphire—after being off-limits for more than 40 years, awaiting a wilderness designation from the U.S. Forest Service.
The bill has drawn support from a coalition of Montana organizations, including Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, Backcountry Sled Patriots, Montana Mining Association, Montana Snowmobile Association, Great Falls Trail Bike Riders, Safari Club International, and Big Game Forever.
There are 44 WSAs within Montana’s borders, with 7 administered by the Forest Service and the other 37 maintained by BLM. The creation of the WSAs under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 followed a push in the 1970s by Congress to recommend areas for wilderness designation.
Ron Wiseman, a Forest Service District Ranger, said the WSAs are treated as “de facto” wilderness, with activities analyzed for possible impact along many wilderness characteristics, including being “unroaded,” maintaining a “primitive character,” providing “solitude,” and being “primarily undeveloped.”
“What it does is put a layer of analysis on before we can proceed,” Wiseman said. That includes activities with “heavy impact” like logging or road building.
Jaime Tompkins of Montana-Dakotas BLM, said that while some mineral leasing and other activities are grandfathered in prior to WSA designation, no additional “surface disturbance” is permitted.
“That’s the key, we have to manage so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation of wilderness,” in the event of wilderness designation, Tompkins told the Great Falls Tribune. “That’s the take home right there.”
Removing the study area designation would not remove other federal management and oversight processes in place for Forest Service or BLM lands, nor would it open up the land to immediate mineral or resource development, like oil and gas.
“No, that wouldn’t happen,” Wiseman said.
“There’s still a forest plan and an inventoried roadless act that still directs our management of those areas,” he said.
Daines rejected the accuracy of the UM poll.
“However well intentioned the survey was, the information used in the poll is inaccurate and very misleading,” Daines told Montana Public Radio. “Frankly, the public would have been better served by a survey that included an objective description of the actual policy. That would have provided policy makers and reporters a more accurate measure of true public opinion. Unfortunately this poll instead was a messaging test for those who oppose my bill, simply to sway public opinion.”