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Montana lawmakers to study future of wilderness study areas

TOM KUGLIN | Apr 25, 2019

On its final day, the Montana Legislature passed a resolution to study and make recommendations to Congress on the management of wilderness study areas.

Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillion, brought Senate Joint Resolution 20 to create a study committee with interest groups in the legislative interim to develop recommendations for nearly 663,000 acres currently designated as study areas.

SJ 20 followed a push by Republicans at the state and federal level to release wilderness study areas not recommended by federal agencies for continued study back to management as regular national forest.

In 2017, the Republican-led Legislature passed a resolution encouraging Congress to release wilderness study areas. Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte brought bills at the federal level to release wilderness study areas. Those bills saw support from several conservative counties but strong opposition from conservation interests.

SJ 20 was opposed by several conservation groups due to its language, which they felt predisposed the study committee to the conclusion that wilderness study areas should be released.

The resolution saw amendments that cut much of the language considered divisive, but some lawmakers still had issues.

Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, said if the study committee intends to be collaborative, language that referred to current management as wasteful of resources does not set it off on the right foot.

“The way the resolution is written does not set the stage for meaningful collaboration,” she said.

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, carried the resolution in the House and said the heart of the resolution was about getting a public forum engaged to discuss management and bring some closure to the study areas, some of which are 40 years old.

The House passed the resolution 59-38.