Sen. Steve Daines is introducing a bill that would remove management restrictions on three Wilderness Study Areas, saying the change would increase public access and improve management to cut wildfire risk.

The three WSAs listed in the "Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act" include the Middle Fork of the Judith, and the Hoodoo Mountain WSA and the Wales Creek WSA — both in Powell County.

WSAs were originally proposed decades ago to allow for the consideration of additional wilderness areas on federal lands. But critics have said the tracts, which are often on Bureau of Land Management acreage, prevent access by sportsmen and other public lands users, and create "de facto" wilderness.

Environmental interests have argued the WSAs should be protected by being finalized as wilderness areas, a step that requires Congressional approval.

“After working with local stakeholders and county commissioners and looking at the science, I’m glad to introduce a bill that would enhance sportsmen opportunities and access, help restore wildlife habitats, and decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” Daines said in a prepared statement released to MTN News.

The Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek WSAs comprise over 11,000 acres each in the Garnet Mountains. Daines said that BLM has raised concerns about the fire risk from heavy mountain pine beetle infestation in those tracts.

The Middle Fork Judith WSA is 81,000 acres and was recently deemed "unsuitable for wilderness" during a review by the U.S. Forest Service.

“For decades, land managers have been forced to decrease public access and unable to use critical conservation tools to manage these acres according to resource conditions and local input because of congressional inaction," Sen. Daines stated. "Within the past two years, following a multi-year collaborative process with robust public comment, and using the best available science and spanning multiple Administrations, these areas were deemed unsuitable for wilderness management once again. Now it’s past time we respond to this locally-led planning direction and release them to general management of public lands.”

Daines said that all of the lands would remain federally owned, with USFS saying the Middle Fork Judith WSA will retain Roadless Area protections.

Nineteen local leaders and stakeholder groups have expressed support for the changes, according to Daines.