Glenn Casamassa, associate deputy chief of the National Forest System, testified before the Senate Natural Resource and Energy committee members that the agency supports the goals of Senator Steve Daines’ (R-Montana) proposed legislation that would lift Wilderness Study Area designations in five Montana WSAs, including the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs on the Bitterroot Forest.
When asked about the potential impact of the legislation upon forest management of the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs in particular, David Smith, Director of Public and Governmental Relations at the Regional Office in Missoula, said one important thing to recognize is that Daines’ bill, called the “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act” S 2206, does not include the acreage in the Blue Joint WSA that was recommended for wilderness designation. He said another point that should be emphasized is that lifting the WSA designation does not affect the underlying Forest Plan designation for the areas being released which are currently designated as Inventoried Roadless Areas.
According to Tod McKay, Public Affairs Officer for the Bitterroot National Forest, management of Inventoried Roadless Areas is primarily governed by the 2001 Roadless Rule which prohibits things like new road construction or re-construction and limits timber harvesting to small diameter trees for the purpose of threatened or endangered species, habitat improvement or things like hazardous fuels reduction.
“So we could go into these areas if we designated some small non-commercial thinning,” said McKay, “but we would be prevented from doing a commercial timber sale in the roadless areas.” He said, “A good example would be the recent situation up Canyon Creek where the homeowners wanted us to do a timber sale in an area that hasn’t burned in a hundred years and is holding a lot of fuel. We looked at it and found it to be in Inventoried Roadless, so there is no possibility of doing a commercial timber sale.” He said as a result they are considering some non-commercial thinning in the area.
“This Rule would apply to all the land in the WSAs even after the WSA designation is lifted,” he said.
Although road building and commercial timber sales are prohibited, McKay said, “the interesting thing is that motorized vehicle use and bicycle use are not prohibited in Inventoried Roadless Areas. So that would be something we would have to look at again in our Travel Plan decision.” McKay said that the Forest Travel Plan which was adopted in 2016 prohibits motorized and mechanized travel in these areas, including mountain bikes.
McKay said that the existing Travel Plan will remain in effect in these areas, but it could be changed under the National Environmental Policy Act under the “Changed Condition Analysis.”
“If there is a ‘changed condition’, like the lifting of a WSA designation, then we could go back in and look at those areas because when the original analysis for the Travel Plan was done, there were these restriction on it.” He said taking a look at this would be one of the first things they would do if the legislation passes.
“But there is always a public input process anytime we make a decision like that,” said McKay. “The rest of the Plan will stay in place but these two areas may be re-examined. But every restriction we currently have will remain in place until we go through that public process to change it.”
The Travel Plan is currently in court where it is being challenged over the issues of motorized and mechanized vehicle restrictions.
And what about mining?
According to Casamassa, without the WSA designations, access could be allowed by holders of minerals leases if they were issued prior to the Roadless Rule becoming effective in 2001.
McKay said the WSA designation did not prevent mining from occurring in these areas. Those with active claims could still mine in a WSA as long as their claim/permit was active and approved, although the prohibition of road construction and re-construction in a WSA could be a limiting factor on any new development.
McKay said right now there is only one active mining operator on the forest that is working on the West Fork Ranger District, but there are other historic claims. There is one located within the Sapphire WSA and eleven located in the Blue Joint WSA. None of these is currently in operation. And before any new mining could occur, the operator would need a permit from both the Forest Service and BLM. The Forest Service is responsible for regulating all surface disturbances of resources and BLM manages sub-surface areas.
In all, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act would release nearly 450,000 acres that the U.S. Forest Service found not suitable for wilderness designation in the early 1980s. The locations and approximate areas to be released include:
• 151,000 acres comprising the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area
• 32,500 acres within the Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area
• 94,000 acres comprising the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area
• 81,000 acres comprising the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area
• 91,000 acres comprising the Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area
Congressman Greg Gianforte has introduced a version of Daines’ bill in the House as well as one of his own called the Unlocking Public Lands Act. Gianforte’s bill would release 24 Wilderness Study Areas, comprising over 240,000 acres, that the Bureau of Land Management found not suitable for wilderness designation by 1980.
Together the bills implement recommendations by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to release more than 690,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in Montana that the agencies found not suitable for wilderness designation.
The WSAs that would be released by Gianforte’s bill include the Axolotl Lakes Wilderness Study Area; the Bell/Limekiln Canyons Wilderness Study Area; the Henneberry Ridge Wilderness Study Area; the Hidden Pasture Wilderness Study Area; the Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area; the Black Sage Wilderness Study Area; the Blacktail Mountains Wilderness Study Area; the Centennial Mountains Wilderness Study Area; the East Fork Blacktail Deer Creek Wilderness Study Area; the public land that is included in the Farlin Creek Wilderness Study Area; and not depicted on the map entitled ‘‘East Pioneers Wilderness’’ and dated September 13, 2010; the Ruby Mountains Wilderness Study Area; the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Billy Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Bridge Coulee Wilderness Study Area; the Seven Blackfoot Wilderness Study Area; the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area; the Hoodoo Mountain Wilderness Study Area; the Wales Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Antelope Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Cow Creek Wilderness Study Area; the Dog Creek South Wilderness Study Area.
Here is the link to the USFS report and draft environmental impact statement on the blue joint and sapphire WSAs from 1985: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=21183