ABC FOX MONTANA - 4-20-18 Take Flight: Wilderness Study Areas

Apr 20, 2018

Take Flight: An aerial tour of two of Montana's Wilderness Study Areas


Wilderness Study Areas: hundreds of thousands of acres of some of Montana's wildest lands.

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But these public lands may look a lot different in the future.

Aboard an EcoFlight, ABC FOX Montana's Angela Marshall flew over two Wilderness Study Areas to find out more about the storm brewing between the summits.

Clear, blue skies open the horizon for a plane tour of two Wilderness Study Areas (WSA's), both of which surround the Bitterroot Valley.

"So, as you are looking into Idaho, some of the most wildest country," says EcoFlight pilot, Bruce Gordon.

The first, the 64,000-acre Blue Joint WSA.
The second, the Sapphire, 98,000-acres of land.
Both are prime winter ranges for elk, deer and other wildlife.
Both are ripe with vegetation.
And both are unspoiled by humans.
No roads.
No power lines.

"There's not a lot of valleys in some of these places," Gordon says. "So you need the lower hills to be able to be... accessible."

These are two of 44 WSA's in Montana that could lose their 'wilderness' designation if Congress were to pass two pieces of proposed legislation.

"Many years ago, the Forest Service determined some of our forests are not suitable for wilderness," says U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT). "But Congress dropped the ball and failed to release them back to Montanans."

The Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act and the Unlocking Public Lands Act, put forth by Sen. Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte (R-MT) call for the release of these lands.

A statement from Rep. Gianforte says, in part, "These bills finally act on those scientific findings, and restore almost 700,000 acres to Forest Service and BLM management."

Some wilderness advocates opposed to the proposals say that the bills would open up these public lands to mining and the creation of roads.

"This is kind of the biggest concerns from a wildlife and habitat perspective," says Alec Underwood with the Montana Wildlife Federation. "We know that our big game populations do need secure habitat in order to flourish."

Butch Waddill, a former state legislator from Florence says, "And hopefully, one day get them approved as wilderness areas so we can preserve these areas, because they are diminishing rapidly. And that's why we are 'The Last Best Place,' because we have so many of them."

Others says that's not the case. 

"It would also allow a planning process that would allow a lasting resolution that could include everything from a designated wilderness to a more general use," says Keith Kubista with Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife.

They say that the legislation would simply unlock our public lands for all sportsman, including the disabled and elderly, to enjoy and to help manage our forests.

Kubista adds, "To improve, not only forest health, but wildlife habitat that's in great interest to folks in the outdoor recreational industry."

While the proposals, as they stand now, are pitting Montanans against Montanans, one commonality is found: Montanans must be given the opportunities to come together to determine the best use for 'The Last Best Place.'

Angela also reached out to Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), who has worked on similar legislation, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act.

He says that he is opposed to these bills, because he says the release of these WSA's would change the landscape of Montana forever.

No movement has been made on these proposals, since they were first introduced in Congress.