House supports resolution dissolving wilderness study areas

UPDATE: On March 1, HJ9 passed the House on third reading 56-44.
On Tuesday, the Montana House of Representatives gave initial approval to a bill that would ask Congress to dissolve seven wilderness study areas and open the lands to multiple uses, including logging, mining and a wide range of recreation.

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, told the House that House Joint Resolution 9 is just asking Congress to do its job and decide the fate of seven wilderness study areas designated in the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977. The act directed the federal government to study the areas and then decide within five years whether to create wilderness or not. Until the decision was made, the areas were to be maintained in a wild condition, which has prompted wilderness opponents to call the areas “de-facto wilderness.”

“Forty years is long enough,” White said. “Some of these people are afraid that we’re going to have industrial complexes in these areas. But if these are released, they’ll go through a formal planning process. So it’s not like we’re releasing them into anything that won’t have public involvement.”

But HJ9 has already has extensive public involvement during the Legislature, and White didn’t mention that most of the comments the Natural Resources committee received were in opposition, said Rep. Virginia Court, D-Helena.

“We have received almost 2,500 emails opposing this resolution,” Court said.

Almost 50 Montanans testified in opposition during the committee hearing, compared with seven who were in support. Some supporters said the WSA’s needed updated reviews before decisions were made. Others asked the committee to allow collaborative efforts such as the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project to move forward instead of supporting a top-down approach.

HJ9 passed out of committee on a 9-6 party-line vote, but not before Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, suggested a number of amendments based upon the testimony.

White accepted a few amendments, but Flynn told the House on Tuesday that he could not vote for the bill unless White added one more: that the WSA’s or portions of the WSA’s could be considered for a bigger variety of designations, including national recreation areas, conservation areas, wildlife management areas, wilderness areas, or national forest lands.

“That would be my letter to Santa Claus,” Flynn said. “I don’t think we need to have wilderness areas on every single one of these. And after 30 years we need to decide something. I just think there needs to be more choices in there.”

The Santa-Claus reference popped up several times as legislators said sending a letter to a Congress that has been largely ineffective was like writing a letter to Santa Claus.

But Rep. Bill Harris, R-Winnett, highlighted the reason that White and others wanted HJ9 to move forward: Republicans control both the Congress and the Oval Office, and Rep. Ryan Zinke will soon be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior.

“There’s a new Santa Claus in town. And probably what that means is somebody’s going to pay attention to this letter,” Harris said.

The Congressional GOP has already signaled its intent to unload federal public lands so it would probably introduce budget-bill riders to release the WSA’s instead of considering them for other designation.

That would be fine for most of the representatives who rose in support of the bill, speaking on behalf of motorized groups, including snowmobilers, ATV riders and off-road enthusiasts. Rep. Dale Mortenson, R-Billings, said he wanted to ride his snowmobile in an area that was closed off after 1977. Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, also a snowmobiler, said he wanted his two wheelchair-bound friends to be able to ride in the WSA’s.

White himself is a founding member of Citizens for Balanced Use.

“Snowmobiling, off-road, OHV, motorcycle use – that’s a growing industry in our state. We’re being denied access to these areas. These areas should be released so we can have those areas for recreation,” White said.

The resolution passed with a 55-44 vote but must pass the third reading on Wednesday if it is to move over to the Senate.