Out of the Wilderness

After 40 wasted years, these wilderness study areas must be returned to the multiple use management our public lands need and we deserve

By Dave Skinner

Most of us have voted already, wisely of course, and we’ve got yet another hot pot ready to bubble on the front burner: Wilderness Study Areas. Environmentalists are outraged at Montana Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte for supporting the release of 29 wilderness study areas out of the political wilderness and back to multiple use.

The roughly 700,000 acres involved are managed by both the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to preserve “wilderness character,” even though none of the 29 ever met legal criteria for their mandated agency reviews at any time in the past 40-plus years.

Those standards were set 54 years ago, when the original 1964 Wilderness Act became law, thanks in large part to Montana’s very own, very senior, and very powerful U.S. senator, the late Lee Metcalf (D).

At first glance, the Wilderness Act seems straightforward, at least to those who aren’t lawyers and politicians (Metcalf was both): First, designate a first round of official Forest Service wilderness out of existing Primitive Areas like the Bob Marshall. Next, establish a process of inventory, study and reporting for potential wilderness with a 10-year deadline. Finally, Congress would decide yes or no on the final question of designation as formal wilderness.

Sounds reasonable, right? Set aside and protect wilderness, and turn unsuitable lands back to full-spectrum multiple-use management, right?

Not so fast. Congress, its wisdom enhanced by Metcalf’s guidance, mandated no deadline to act either way, and importantly, didn’t prohibit moving the goalposts if the opportunity came up in the future.

After the Green movement spread off campuses in the 1970s, and with further opportunity presented by a radicalized post-Watergate Congress (thank you, Tricky Dick), Metcalf, a brilliant man by all accounts, saw and used his opportunity to move some goalposts.

First, in 1976, he guided the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) through Congress, expanding Wilderness Act eligibility and study to BLM lands. Metcalf moved more goalposts in 1977, spearheading a new law that mandated WSA status for certain lands the Forest Service had reviewed, and importantly, initially rejected for wilderness status. These lands were mostly rejected – again.

What’s the problem today? Under both the Wilderness Act and FLPMA, the president, representing executive branch agencies, timely made recommendations by a July 1982 deadline that, as FLPMA Section 603 reads, would “become effective only if so provided by an act of Congress.” The law is silent, however, on when Congress needs to act.

What if Congress dithers? As FLPMA reads, until Congress takes action, the relevant agency has to “continue to manage” all WSAs “so as not to impair suitability” for preservation.

I think all of us, in some fashion, have learned that the deviltry of what Congress does, or doesn’t do, lies in the details, or lack thereof, written into federal law. The political history of the Wilderness Act itself, 54 years after passage, 42 years since the creation of Lee Metcalf’s personal do-over WSAs, epitomizes everything loathsome about Washington, D.C.

Once a noble cause, wilderness, like just about everything Congress contaminates, ranks right up there with the swampiest special-interest muck flooding Congress, and that’s ignoring crocodilian executive branch stunts like the Clinton-era Roadless Rule and Antiquities Act designations in the absence of “approved” acts of Congress.

Montana alone has 44 unresolved WSAs (nine USFS, 37 BLM), left in political limbo for at least 30 years. The bills introduced by Daines and Gianforte would “release” 29 WSAs, which never objectively were, or can ever be again, true wilderness.

As for the other four Forest Service and eight BLM WSAs? I’m up for an adult discussion about true wilderness suitability under the review rules Congress did in fact establish. Montanans are ready for that.

But count me among the hundreds of thousands of Montanans who support Daines and Gianforte, and will keep on voting for anyone who will support passage of this proposal and get it signed into law. After 40 wasted years, these WSAs must be returned to the multiple use management our public lands need, and we, the people who own them, deserve.

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