Daines touts bill to release wilderness study areas in Senate hearing

Larch in fall splendor in the Sapphires Wilderness Study Area. (Montana Wilderness Association/Zack Porter)

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines testified before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, touting his Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act as a tool to open Montana’s public lands to a wider set of uses.

If implemented, Senate Bill 2206 would release five Wilderness Study Areas totaling nearly 500,000 acres in Montana from further review as potential wilderness.

Daines said the U.S. Forest Service has deemed the areas unsuitable as wilderness, adding that his bill would protect public access to Montana’s public lands.

“Forty years of D.C. paralysis has frozen our access and use of public lands,” said Daines. “It’s time to keep public lands in public hands.”

Back in Montana, on the eve of the hearing, Granite County commissioners flip-flopped their position by casting sudden support behind the bill, saying they now favor releasing the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area, along with four other WSAs, from consideration as wilderness.

In a Dec. 19 letter to Daines, the commissioners had initially declined to support the measure, saying it needed more time for public comment. Despite opposition in Montana from those who say the Republican senator has skirted the public process, Daines said his bill represents a grass-roots effort that will benefit many.

Sen. Steve Daines

“This bill follows bottom-up requests from the state legislature and local communities,” he said. “Implementing the Forest Service recommendation for these WSAs will increase the value of public lands for Montana outdoor recreationists of all ages and across the board — hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, mountain bikers, off-road vehicles users and more – bolstering Montana’s $6 billion outdoor economy and balancing our iconic wildlife populations.”

The areas noted in the bill include the West Pioneers in southwest Montana; the Sapphire Wilderness on the Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests; the Middle Fork Judith in northcentral Montana; the Big Snowies near Lewistown; and the Blue Joint Wilderness south of Hamilton on the Montana-Idaho border.

“Some folks think that by removing all a Wilderness Study Area designation, we’re removing all protections for the lands and its resources,” Daines said during his testimony.

A few hours after Daines told the Senate committee that his bill had widespread support, an estimated 300 people attended a hearing in Ravalli County to address the measure.

Ravalli County commissioners relocated the meeting to the fairgrounds due to the high turnout. There, a total of 51 people spoke against the bill while 18 spoke in favor, according to a Montana Wilderness Association policy director.

Despite that opposition, Ravalli County commissions voted to let their letter of support stand.

“I’m appalled the county commissioners ignored the overwhelming opposition they heard today from Ravalli County residents,” said Marilyn Wolff, a Stevenville resident and MWA member. “This meeting showed that Sen. Daines does not have the local support he claims his bill has. It also goes to show he should have held public meetings before crafting his bill.”