Rep. Greg Gianforte on Thursday defended his bills to remove the wilderness study designation from 800,000 acres of public lands in Montana, a move supported by stockgrowers and motorized groups but opposed by wildlife and wilderness advocates.
In a hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Gianforte maintained his position that the 29 Wilderness Study Areas included in his bills were deemed unsuitable as wilderness more than 30 years ago – a claim that some are questioning.
Gianforte said it was time to release the WSAs to local management.
“Removing the one-size-fits-all restriction currently imposed by the outdated designation allows communities to engage on the lands in the way that best serves their needs,” Gianforte said. “This can mean more trails in one county, or more grazing in another. In areas more prone to wildfires, management plans can be tailored toward fire preparedness and insect resiliency.”
Of the two bills, the Unlocking Public Lands Act states that 24 WSAs in Montana “have been adequately studied for wideness designation,” setting them up for release. The other, dubbed the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, calls for the release of five WSAs that have also been adequately studied.
Gianforte introduced the measures in March, claiming they’d won grassroots support from stakeholders across Montana. He maintained that position Thursday.
“I’m committed to increasing public access to our public lands, as well as listening to and empowering our local communities,” he said. “These principles will continue to guide how I approach our public lands issues. I’ll continue to meet with groups representing different backgrounds and viewpoints.”
But Tracy Stone Manning, the only opponent invited to testify on Thursday, said Gianforte’s claims of collaboration were misleading. While Montanans have sought common ground when solving land use policies, she said, the two bills before the committee were “lopsided” and “polarizing.”
Congress, she added, should look to foster collaboration.
“The two bills before you are a radical turn away from that approach – that collaborative, community-driven conservation,” Manning told the committee. “Not one public meeting has been held in Montana by the sponsor (Gianforte) on the topic of these bills, despite the request to do so.”
Stone Manning, who serves as the associate vice president for public lands with the National Wildlife Federation, also questioned the substance of Gianforte’s bills.
Since 1984, she said, just 67,000 acres have been designated as wilderness in Montana, less than what’s been designated in New Hampshire, Arkansas and Georgia.
Portions of several WSAs included in Gianforte’s bill have been identified by the Bureau of Land Management as suitable for wilderness designation. Opponents of the legislation suggest Gianforte intentionally overlooked that.
“The sponsor purports to have followed decades-old agency recommendations, but he only followed the recommendations for releasing areas,” Stone Manning said. “The bill does not include any agency recommendations to designate wilderness, making it lopsided and polarizing.”
Greg Chilcott, a commissioner from Ravalli County, said the areas included in Gianforte’s bills have been managed as “de facto wilderness” for more than 30 years, and he continued to lobby for their release.
Doing so, Chilcott maintained, would open the lands to diversified recreational opportunities and enhanced forest management.
“Lifting the WSA designations by no means leaves these lands and areas unprotected,” he said. “Many will remain as inventoried roadless areas, or will be managed for primitive and semi-primitive recreational experiences.”
Chris French, associate deputy of the U.S. Forest Service, also supported releasing the WSAs. If the legislation were approved, he said, the areas would be managed under the “applicable Forest Service direction.”
Responding to a question from Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-PA, French said that could include logging.
“As we look at these lands, that would be a consideration we’d take,” French said. “Harvesting of our national forests is a use of our national forests. It can lead to a lot of outcomes – improved wildlife habitat, reduction of wildland fuels for our large-scale fires, as well as providing sustainable, economic development benefits to the communities we’re a part of.”
While Gianforte has said his bills would not open the WSAs to mining and oil and gas development, the Montana Wilderness Association believes otherwise. Several WSAs named in the bills would be available for oil and gas development, the organization said.
Among them, the group said all four of the WSAs in the Miles City Resource Area – including the Terry Badlands, Billy Creek, Bridge Coulee and Seven Blackfoot – would be available for oil and gas leasing and hardrock mining claims if the Unlocking Public Lands Act passed.
Other WSAs could also see development.
“All nine WSAs in the Dillon Resource Area would be available for oil and gas leasing,” said Ted Brewer with the Montana Wilderness Association. “The Hidden Pasture WSA would be particularly vulnerable since there has been been leasing and seismic testing immediately adjacent to the WSA. Moreover, there’s been a request for a permit for exploratory drilling in Big Sheep Creek, located just south of the WSA.”