Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

County Commissioners’ stand on WSAs headed for public debate


By Michael Howell


At a meeting last September 15, 2017, the Ravalli County Commissioners agreed to send a letter, drafted by Commissioners Greg Chilcott and Jeff Burrows, to Senator Steve Daines. Chilcott told the Board at the time that he was inspired to write the letter after having spoken with Senator Daines a few weeks prior. He said it was “a discussion about finally taking action on the Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and releasing those study areas that don’t have great local support, or have not met the criteria set forth by the agency.”

The letter recently gained renewed attention when Daines presented it as back up documentation to his proposed Senate Bill that would release both the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas in Ravalli County to multiple use management and remove the protections associated with preserving wilderness values. To date, all Wilderness Study Areas have by court decree been managed so as to preserve the state of affairs until Congress decides on their disposition.

The use of that letter by Daines in sponsoring his new legislation apparently brought it the attention of several Ravalli County residents for the first time. Last week, six people signed off on a letter to the Commissioners asking them to rescind the letter to Daines and hold a public hearing on the issue. Although the commissioners did not rescind the letter, the issue has been placed on the calendar for discussion this coming Wednesday, February 7.

In the September 15 letter, the Commissioners note that they support the Forest Service’s 1987 recommendation to release the 37,806-acre Sapphire WSA. Although the Blue Joint WSA is 64,168 acres with 27,501 acres recommended for Wilderness in the 1987 Bitterroot Forest Plan, “The Commission strongly opposes Wilderness designation of any of the Blue Joint WSA,” states the letter.

The letter makes note that the Bitterroot National Forest has 750,211 acres of dedicated wilderness area and two WSAs with a combined acreage of 101,974 acres and an additional 48,864. acres designated as Recommended Wilderness Areas.

“We believe that there are NO public lands, which are not currently designated as Wilderness Area, that have STRONG LOCAL SUPPORT for designation as Wilderness Area in Ravalli County,” state the commissioners. They go on to claim that the “overwhelming majority of Ravalli County citizens that live and work here support a reduction of public lands managed as Wilderness Area and increasing public lands managed for multiple-use.”

The Commissioners state, “These areas are still Wilderness Study Areas, not because they have outstanding wilderness characteristics, but because Congress has not acted to remove the WSA designation it imposed 40 years ago.”

The letter mentions budget problems and suggests that the release of the lands to multiple-use would help the economy. It also points to the catastrophic wildfires that begin on wilderness lands and are not fought, but then spread, when they have grown too big to deal with, onto other National Forest land and private land.

On January 29, 2018, the Commissioners received a letter signed by seven Ravalli County residents – Doug Lorain, Taylor Orr, Kathy and Joe  Hundley, Dale Burk, Pat Tucker and Bruce Weide – asking them to reconsider and “take immediate action regarding your position on Ravalli County’s wilderness study areas.”

They claim the commissioners’ decision to send the letter “at a poorly publicized and poorly attended daytime meeting” did not provide the public with sufficient opportunity to comment “as required by the Montana State Constitution and state open meeting laws.”

They also cite an Attorney General’s Opinion that the amount of notice required “should increase with the relative significance of the decision to be made,” with the goal of encouraging and assisting citizen participation.

They emphasized the significant public interest in this issue by noting that the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs were proposed for wilderness back in the 1970s, and in 1987 the Forest Service recommended a portion of the Blue Joint as wilderness. In 1988, legislation designating portions of the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs as wilderness passed both houses of Congress. Since 1983, Montana’s Congressional delegation has repeatedly sought to address the seven remaining WSAs created by the Wilderness Study Act. Legislation was introduced in 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2009, 2011 and 2013 that proposed balanced legislative solutions for Montana’s wilderness study areas.

“Today, there is still intense public interest in the management of the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas, and the areas are still popular among hunters, hikers, and others,” the citizens’ letter states.

They also expressed concerns that the decision was made without any consultation of the Ravalli County Collaborative, “a group that the Commissioners created to advise the County on natural resource management decisions by providing a forum for thoughtful analysis and careful consideration.” They also point out that the longstanding Bitterroot Restoration Committee was neither informed nor consulted about the decision.

“Taking such an important position on the county’s wilderness study areas surely deserves more attention than a morning meeting with only two members of the public present,” they conclude.

They ask the commissioners to rescind the September 15 letter and schedule a well-publicized hearing during convenient hours to consider public views on the county’s wilderness study areas.

The letter writers have been informed by the County Commissioners that a meeting has been scheduled at the County Administration Office on Wednesday, February 7, at 10 a.m. to discuss their concerns.

Daines’ proposed legislation, S. 2206, would remove protection from five landscapes in Montana currently managed as wilderness study areas – Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneers, Blue Joint, and Sapphire. In total, these areas amount to nearly 500,000 acres. This bill will receive a hearing on February 7 in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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