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Gianforte aims to release 29 wilderness study areas; critics contend lack of public process

Rep. Greg Gianforte, left, and Sen. Steve Daines, both Montana Republicans, look to release 29 wilderness study areas covering 700,000 acres from further review. (Missoula Current file photo)

Rep. Greg Gianforte joined Sen. Steve Daines this week in introducing a bill to release several wilderness study areas across Montana from further review.

However, Gianforte included a second piece of legislation that would add an additional 240,000 acres to the initial proposal, increasing the five landmarks eyed by Daines for release to 29.

The two bills combined cover nearly 700,000 acres.

“Nearly 700,000 acres of Montana’s public lands have been in limbo for as long as 40 years, stuck in a perpetual study that was actually completed years ago,” Gianforte said. “Congress didn’t act then like it should have, and it’s about time we did.”

Like Daines, Gianforte based his legislation off feedback from a carefull selection of conservative counties and user groups, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association – groups he described as “key stakeholders.”

Ravalli County also remains among the proposals’ supporters.

“The studies have been done, the reports have been filed, and recommendations have gone unnoticed for years while a failure to act has crippled federal agencies’ ability to manage these public lands,” said Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott.

Last month, Ravalli County and several other counties came under fire for signing a letter of support urging Daines to release the five wilderness study areas included in the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act.

But critics said Daines – as well as the counties – bypassed the public process and acted unilaterally without soliciting public feedback. The criticism forced Ravalli County to hold a legitimate public hearing that saw around 75 people testify, with the vast majority of them urging the county to rescind its support for Daines’ legislation.

Gianforte has come under similar criticism for only seeking feedback from those who support his effort to release public lands to local control and, some contend, future privatization.

“My husband and I have spent a lot of time hiking in the Terry Badlands over the last ten years,” said Miles City resident Karen Aspevig. “Input from citizens who cherish the WSAs is crucial to understanding and planning for the management of these public lands. Both Gianforte and Daines have introduced bills with no public hearings. They’ve failed Montanans.”

Daines’ initial bill would remove protections from the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneers, Blue Joint, and Sapphire wilderness study areas, which cover around 500,000 acres.

Gianforte has introduced the legislation in the House, along with a second bill – the Unlocking Public Lands Act – which adds another 24 wilderness study areas and 240,000 acres to the proposal.

Daines and Gianforte said the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have deemed the attractions unsuitable for wilderness designation, though that point is now being challenged.

“Portions of eight of the WSAs in his bill, totaling over 100,000 acres, have actually been found suitable by the BLM for wilderness designation,” said John Todd, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association. “It appears Rep. Gianforte hastily and irresponsibly included entire areas in his bill without acknowledging that one third of them have long been determined as suitable for wilderness by the BLM.”

Other critics of the measure say Gianforte’s bills lack transparent public input.

“Gianforte’s two bills represent the single biggest rollback of protected public lands in state history, with Sen. Daines’ bill now a close second,” said Ben Gabriel, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. “Congressman Gianforte is following Sen. Daines’ incredibly unpopular and damaging lead with two bills of his own that fail to include the interests of the vast majority of Montanans who use and cherish these lands.”

Gianforte’s Unlocking Public Lands Act includes the following wilderness study areas:

Axolotl Lakes WSA

Limekiln Canyons WSA

Henneberry Ridge WSA

Hidden Pasture WSA

Twin Coulee WSA

Black Sage WSA

Blacktail Mountains WSA

Centennial Mountains WSA

East Fork Blacktail Creek WSA

Farlin Creek WSA

East Pioneers WSA

Ruby Mounatains WSA

Bitter Creek WSA

Billy Creek WSA

Bridge Coulee WSA

Seven Blackfoot WSA

Terry Badlands WSA

Hoodoo Mountains WSA

Wales Creek WSA

Antelope Creek WSA

Cow Creek WSA

Dog Creek WSA

Ervin Ridge WSA

Stafford WSA

Woodhawk WSA