WASHINGTON, DC — The effort to formalize a plan to set aside new wilderness while allowing more multiple use in the Upper Blackfoot watershed is back in play in Washington D.C.
But re-introduction of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act also inherited a new wrinkle Tuesday, with Senator Steve Daines saying he could support the idea if it was also tied to action returning some Wilderness Study Areas in Montana to more generalized public lands management.
Senator Jon Tester has championed the BCSA's collaborative objectives for more than a decade, saying it's the best way to set aside an additional 80,000 acres of wilderness in the Upper Blackfoot, while still protecting recreational and industrial use. That includes timber management allocations and trails for snowmobiles, mountain bikes and backcountry outfitters.
But during the bill's initial hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday, Senator Daines took a position of conditional support for the BCSA. Daines praised the supporters' efforts to pass the Act but also said he had heard from groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation wondering about the additional wilderness set aside when Congress has yet to resolve the decades' long debate over the Wilderness Study Areas.
WSAs are scattered all across Montana, and critics have accused the federal government of managing them as "de facto" wilderness, limiting public use for activities like mountain biking, or timber management, even when analysis has determined no wilderness characteristics.
Daines told his fellow senators he plans to introduce legislation that could be added to the BCSA "returning" some of the WSA lands to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for "general management."
"The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act designates new wilderness, but without making a dent on the backlog of acres determined unsuitable for wilderness many decades ago," Daines said in a prepared statement for the hearing. "I intend to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to release certain Wilderness Study Areas deemed not suitable for wilderness. And would urge the Chair and the ranking member that this bill, The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship project, would only move forward as part of that larger, more balanced effort."
In a statement to MTN News later in the afternoon, Tester noted the support for the BCSA.
“The BCSA is the result of decades of collaborative work from folks on the ground, is supported by over 70 percent of Montanans, and I’d welcome Senator Daines’ support. The BCSA stands on its own merits, and any changes or additions would need to be widely-supported and include a similarly collaborative process involving the folks in the BCSA collaborative who got us here.”
Conservation groups are already reacting to Daines' comments Tuesday. John Todd, Deputy Director of Wild Montana issued a statement criticizing the Senator's proposal.
"Today, Sen. Daines could have joined 75% of Montanans and over 170 businesses, groups and organizations in support of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. Instead, he held the bill hostage. The ransom he seems to be demanding for his support of the BCSA is a bill he introduced in 2017 to strip protections from a half million acres of public lands across the state, a bill he announced today he was exhuming in spite of the fact that 9% of Montanans support the bill."
Todd said Daines' WSA step is a "top down" proposal, while the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act was made from "the ground up" by Montanans.