The Importance of Wilderness Study Areas

We, citizens of Montana, are not nearly as divided as all the political showmanship trickling down from the top

By Amy Robinson

Lately we’ve heard a lot from our politicians about public lands and specifically Wilderness Study Areas. I’ve worked on public lands challenges, and wilderness protection, for nearly six years in Northwest Montana. This is a topic I know something about.

What are these Wilderness Study Areas? These areas are the headwaters for our communities, our backyard playgrounds, our open, quiet, wildflower-filled prairies, buttes, breaks and badlands. In some places, grizzlies dig for army cutworm moths, wolverines roam free, wildlife graze on winter range, and people hunt, fish, hike, climb, ski, backpack and generally find opportunity for rejuvenation. These areas were protected by Congress in 1977.

What’s it all about? Three bills were recently introduced to Congress. One by Sen. Steve Daines and two by Rep. Greg Gianforte. Together, these bills remove protection from 29 different areas totalling over 800,000 acres across our state. These are public lands that are managed either by the U.S Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. All of these areas have historically been recognized as special and worthy to be considered, and managed, for future Wilderness designation. These protections do matter and are above and beyond the roadless rule. This is something we should all care about and pay attention to.

I have worked in several collaborative groups in Northwest Montana, and I am here to say that we, citizens of Montana, are not nearly as divided as all the political showmanship trickling down from the top. We must not be folded into the division. These areas represent what we care about as Montanans and do not depend whatsoever on political affiliation. We must rise above the unproductive, all or nothing, stance being promoted by our decision makers, and embrace the values that unite us: Our public lands and wild places.

A recent poll released by Montana Wildlife Federation found that 75 percent of Montanans say they would be more likely to support a forest management plan developed through a collaborative approach. In western Montana alone, I’ve worked with all sorts of people with all types of interests and viewpoints on public land management, and we’ve agreed on over 350,000 acres of more wilderness for our state, and in some cases that doesn’t include what the Forest Service recommended in their 1980s era plans. I’m telling you, my truth remains, there is enough room for all of us here.

These areas deserve well thought out and publicly vetted legislation that does not wholeheartedly discount protection. Every decade, for the last four, a variety of bills have been introduced that attempt a balanced solution for Congress to act on. In 1988, a bill that addressed each of the remaining areas passed both the House and the Senate, only to be vetoed by President Reagan. The 1988 bill, and all the others over the decades, proposed a combination of land uses, some areas for wilderness and others managed for different priorities. I see this as a very reasonable, democratic approach to public lands management and a tact that isn’t currently being followed.

My best conclusion is that our delegation simply isn’t listening to Montanans. We must encourage our decision makers to do the hard work and let them know our truth. In this state, we have a long and strong track record of defending and protecting special areas, while honoring all interests and values. I firmly believe, it is not about either/or with our public lands, it’s about AND. In our state, we know how to work together, and we are not against our protected areas. The fact is, we treasure them.

Amy Robinson is Northwest Montana field director for the Montana Wilderness Association.

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