Releasing WSAs will improve access for Montana sportsmen

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It’s a simple fact: Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) have resulted in less access for Montana sportsmen and sportswomen. In a literal sense, these public lands are essentially locked up. With hunting and fishing access becoming more precious each year, it only makes sense to review the WSAs in Montana, and release those that are not suitable to become full-blown Wilderness.

Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have proposed just that — and surprisingly, they’ve caught hell for it from groups that normally support increasing public access.

There has been so much misinformation spread about WSAs recently, a good place to start is to review the facts.

First of all, public land that is currently in a WSA remains public land if that WSA is released. It’s not sold or transferred to any other entity. Its public land today, and under the bills by Daines and Gianforte it stays public.

Releasing that public land from a WSA designation would allow land management agencies (BLM and Forest Service) to actually manage it. Today, their hands are tied — they cannot build roads for the public to use, they can’t adequately maintain trails, and they’re extremely limited in their authority to fight wildfires in those WSA areas.

Releasing WSAs will help advance forest management projects such as fuel treatments that provide significant advantages for firefighting, enhancing forest health, and providing habitat improvement for wildlife.

Second, releasing these WSAs follows the science. These areas were identified as potential candidates for wilderness designations, some as far back as 40 years ago. Then they were studied by professional scientists to determine whether they were a good fit to become permanent wilderness.

The legislation by Daines and Gianforte would release five WSAs. In all five examples, the scientists determined the areas involved should not be designated as wilderness.

What’s interesting, however, is that a mere WSA designation carries with it all the restrictions — for instance, no roads — that would be applied to a full-blown wilderness area. They’re treated as Wilderness even though the science says they should be actively managed.

Continuing to keep these areas as WSAs has a negative impact on the public, particularly those of us who’d like to hunt, fish, trap, and enjoy other outdoor recreation opportunities in those areas. Today, with access extremely restricted in WSAs, those areas might as well be off limits to many of us.

It’s time for special interests and anti-multiple use groups to stop alleging more wilderness has been created where none exists.

Finally, it’s been amazing how many times I’ve seen these WSA releases characterized as an “assault” or “attack” on public lands. That narrative is intended to deceive the public. These lands are public and we, the public, deserve to be able to access them, especially those of us with limited capabilities and assets.

The public land currently in WSA designations would be managed and protected by our very capable public land management agencies. Under the legislation by Daine and Gianforte, the public would have multiple opportunities to engage in the planning process for these areas, a fact the opponents ignore.

The bottom line is sportsmen and sportswomen will benefit immensely from the legislation that Daines and Gianforte are backing. In total, about 700,000 acres of public land would be opened up for increased access. Those lands are just part of the inventory currently locked up with a WSA designation, is a great place to start to enhance our access opportunities.

Keith Kubista is on the board of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. He lives in Stevensville.

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