Delegation Divided on Roadless Area Act

By Beacon Staff

A group of 26 Montana hunting and fishing groups recently sent a letter to Montana’s federal delegation urging the lawmakers to oppose legislation that would remove protections on nearly 43 million acres of backcountry wilderness and roadless areas nationwide.

A week later, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, one of the bill’s cosponsors, defended the legislation as “common sense,” while Sen. Jon Tester called it an “attack” on the state’s outdoor industry.

The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act – HR-1581 in the House and S-1087 in the Senate – would open up 36 million acres of U.S. Forest Service “Inventoried Roadless Areas” and nearly 7 million acres of Bureau of Land Management “Wilderness Study Areas ” to multiple uses, including new road construction and natural resource development.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said the acres in question have been designated by the Forest Service and BLM as unsuitable for wilderness designation but are still managed similarly to wilderness areas.

“Millions of acres of land across the United States are being held under lock and key unnecessarily,” McCarthy said. “By opening these lands up to residents of our local communities and across the country for their use and enjoyment, we can help create jobs, boost local economies and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.”

A letter dated Sept. 15 outlined strong opposition to the bill from a range of Montana hunting and fishing groups. The outdoor groups said the legislation would affect 5.5 million acres of backcountry land in Montana.

“The bottom line is that this legislation is bad for sportsmen,” Corey Fisher of Trout Unlimited said in a release. “These roadless areas provide the fish and game habitat that makes Montana the envy of sportsmen nationwide. Lose the habitat and you lose the cutthroat trout, elk herds and the places Montanans hunt and fish.”

Ben Lamb, acting executive director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said supporters’ claims that backcountry roadless areas don’t have public access are “bogus.”

“These lands are open to everyone,” Lamb said. “Roadless areas are the middle ground between designated Wilderness and the roaded front country. Every fall thousands of hunters in Montana drive right up to the edge of a roadless area, park their rig and find great walk-in hunting.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation initially supported the measure but then withdrew its support in August, citing potentially detrimental impacts to elk habitat.

In an email to the Beacon, Rehberg acknowledged the importance of protecting the nation’s wild country: “For those areas, Congress is empowered to designate wilderness.” But he said since the areas targeted by the bill have been deemed unsuitable for wilderness by federal agencies, it makes sense to release them from protections.

“It’s past time to return some of these lands to the public for their use and enjoyment,” Rehberg said. “That’s what this common sense bill does.”

But Tester, chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, told the Beacon the bill is a “top-down approach that lets Washington politicians decide what they think is best for our public lands” and “was written without any input from Montanans.”

“We’re against this bill because it’s an irresponsible attack on Montana’s hunting and fishing traditions, it’s an attack on our multibillion-dollar outdoor jobs industry, and it’s an attack on the places where we find and hunt our biggest game,” Tester said.

Both Tester’s office and the sporting groups cited the Forest Service’s road maintenance backlog of between $5 billion and $8 billion as evidence that new roads aren’t needed.

“We already have over 32,000 miles of roads on our state’s national forest,” Doug Haacke of Magic City Fly Fishers in Billings said. “I’d rather see us conserving fish and wildlife habitat and taking care of the roads we already have, not spending more tax dollars on roads we don’t need or want.”

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