Opinion

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Closing Range

Please Release Me

Environmentalists oppose the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, while multiple-use supporters like it

Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R) has introduced a bill (S-2206, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act). The bill would “release” a number of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana from further consideration for Congressional designation as formal, big-W Wilderness.

Environmentalists oppose the bill, while multiple-use supporters like it. Why? Let’s start with the original Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, the same year the Beatles arrived, 53 years ago and counting.

In a nutshell, Congress intended to set aside and preserve worthy parts of wild America. The Wilderness Act formalized all lands previously administratively called “wilderness,” “wild” or “canoe” by the Forest Service, including what is now the original Bob Marshall wilderness – a fine thing.

Next, to ensure that other deserving lands had their chance, Congress set up a 10-year phased review of existing Forest Service “primitive” areas, from which the president was supposed to recommend suitable additions for Congress to approve – or not.

Interior-run lands were included, too. Section 3 Clause C created another phased 10-year review of “roadless” Interior lands comprising over 5,000 contiguous acres, without mentioning the Forest Service at all. These “roadless” lands could then be reviewed and recommended, or not.

Keep in mind the original, and eminently-reasonable, intent of Congress – 10 years for a good look, designate, and move on. Also consider that while the original Act mentions “roadless” areas only on Interior lands, the Forest Service chose to conduct its own Roadless Areas Review and Evaluation (what became “RARE 1) process in 1967, deeming by 1972 that about 12.3 million acres out of 60 million were suitable for wilderness.

Long story short, environmentalists didn’t think the 1964-authorized reviews found enough wilderness, and demanded a do-over. They’ve had several – both through the courts, through Congress, through bureaucratic kabuki, with no end in sight.

Former President Jimmy Carter’s Forest Service then started RARE II in 1977, another do-over that ended up in 1979 with 15 million acres recommended, plus another 10 million worth more study, and 36 million for “nonwilderness.” Under Jimmy Carter!

Meanwhile in 1974, Montana U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf (D) introduced legislation mandating that 10 areas, none of which were recommended for either designation or further study in the 1964 Act’s original review, become wilderness study areas upon which the president would make recommendations to Congress within seven years of enactment. The bill passed Congress in November 1977, meaning recommendations had to be made by November 1984.

Two of the 10 chunks are now wilderness, either included in the Lee Metcalf wilderness of 1983, or the Welcome Creek wilderness in the Sapphires, designated in a multi-state 1978 bill sponsored by Mo Udall (D-New Mexico).

But aren’t lands studied but not recommended for wilderness or “further planning” supposed to go back to multiple use? Oh, no – there’s NO language in the original Wilderness Act specifying any end to Congressional consideration, which in turn left no defense against a lawsuit brought by the state of California against RARE II (essentially demanding a RARE III) in 1982.

The bottom line (for the last 35 years now) of that was, yep, every “wilderness study area,” no matter its suitability, becomes “de-facto wilderness” as long as matters remain unsettled, “protected and preserved.” Greens need only sit and wait, “protecting” lands that honestly shouldn’t be wilderness, ever – but might become wilderness if enough votes can be gathered, just once. On the other side, multi-users can’t rationally support legitimate, consensus wilderness designations (which are permanent) unless there is “hard release” language in wilderness bills that, yep, permanently returns objectively-unsuitable lands to multiple use. And again, it’s a matter of counting enough votes, just once.

So here we are, 53 years into the Wilderness Act, 41 years after Lee Metcalf’s end-run around the 1964 bill, 19 years after President Reagan pocket-vetoed John Melcher’s bill designating most of Lee Metcalf’s WSA’s as wilderness – ignoring the Forest Service’s Metcalf-mandated finding (again) that 608,000 of 973,000 total Metcalf WSA acres were “not suitable.”

Not suitable then, not suitable then, again, not suitable now – yet we’re still “studying?” Hey, it only takes 12 years of studying to get a diploma, people.

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