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Guest Editorial: Montana's Public Lands Should be Run by Montanans, Not D.C.

As a fifth-generation Montanan, I have fond memories with my Grandpa Daines of learning how to fish and hunt north of Big Timber, and my goal is to pass these traditions on to my own children and grandchildren. There is no better way to experience Montana than backpacking, hunting, hiking or fishing. I share this passion with many Montanans, which is why improving access to our public lands is such a high priority. That's why I introduced my "Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act."

Montanans should determine what is best for our public lands, not bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. My bill carries out what Montanans have asked for-it improves wildlife habitat and public access to public land and mitigates the risk of wildfires.

Here are the facts: Nearly 50 years ago – in 1976 and 1977 – Congress passed the "Federal Land Policy and Management Act" and the "Montana Wilderness Study Act" requiring the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to determine if 47 Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) were suitable for a permanent Wilderness designation in Montana.

These studies were completed between 1979 and 1991 and found that the Middle Fork Judith, Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek WSAs should not be permanent Wilderness areas. Recent studies came to the same conclusion, and yet Congress has failed to listen to Montanans and act. It's time we finally follow through on these science-based recommendations.

My "Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act" focuses on these three WSAs. The Middle Fork Judith WSA, managed by the U.S. Forest Service with 81,000 acres, and two managed by BLM; Hoodoo Mountain WSA with 11,380 acres and Wales Creek WSA with 11,580 acres. Combined, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management held over 120 public meetings, and received feedback from over 1,000 Montanans, to again conclude that these three WSAs are not suitable for a wilderness designation. Each of the landscapes have a land management plan for post-release that was developed with public input. Each plan also carefully maintains important protections while empowering land agencies to do what's best for the wildlife, the forests and the surrounding communities.

The Forest Service completed a more than six-year, multi-million-dollar forest plan revision in the fall of 2021 for the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest. The forest plan revision process provides an unmatched opportunity for broad and robust public input into land management decisions. After six years of public input and analyzing the needs and conditions of the forest, the agency concluded the Middle Fork Judith WSA should be returned to general public land management. This flexibility would make it easier for the Forest Service to do much-needed vegetation management to restore and improve elk habitat and mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Similarly, the Bureau of Land Management completed the Missoula Land and Resource Management Plan revision in 2020. After five years of public input and analyzing the needs and conditions on the land, the agency concluded the Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek WSAs should not be managed as wilderness. BLM's plan for both of these WSAs would retain important wildlife habitat protections while giving the agency flexibility to address the mountain pine beetle outbreak that heavily impacted the area, mitigate wildfire risk and enhance backcountry recreation opportunities.

These studies are driven by science, and after looking at the facts, I consulted county commissioners, recreation and wildlife groups and Montanans throughout the state. It is clear that Montanans want the ability to determine the designations of these lands rather than leaving them in limbo for decades.

From mountain bikers to hunters to fishermen to motorized and non-motorized users, Montanans know how best to manage our lands. Returning these WSAs to general management provides the opportunity to make science-based decisions on lands for public access, wildlife habitat and wildfire prevention. It is past time to allow local management decisions to be made here in Montana, not in Washington, D.C. It is past time to accept the input of Montanans and pass my "Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act."

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