Missoulian: Proposal to release roadless, wilderness study areas gains backers, opponents

A proposed bill to release federal roadless and wilderness study areas to local management and development is gathering lengthy lists of supporters and opponents, even though it’s stalled in Congress.

California Rep. Kevin McCarthy authored H.R. 1582, which has 41 co-sponsors including Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg. It had a subcommittee hearing on July 26, 2011, but has yet to be marked up or voted upon.

“The federal government has locked up 43 million acres of federal land in so-called Wilderness Study Areas and Inventoried Roadless Areas, which the government decided weren’t suitable for wilderness,” Rehberg said of the bill in an email Wednesday. “This land is still treated like wilderness, which not only restricts public access but limits our ability to manage the land to keep forests healthy for wildlife. Loosening restrictions on some of this land not only opens the land for public use and enjoyment, but improves the habitat for deer, elk and fish.”

The bill includes about 5.5 million acres in Montana. Most of the lands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

In February, the Montana Wildlife Federation launched an ad campaign protesting the bill. Rehberg’s office responded with a news release on March 6, listing support from the National Rifle Association, Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, and the Missoula SnoGoers, along with six other state and national groups.

On Wednesday, a coalition of 100 Montana businesses issued a letter to Rehberg and Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester opposing the bill.

“We think conservation of fish and wildlife is not partisan,” Trout Unlimited’s Corey Fisher said during a conference call with some of the business owners. “We hope all elected officials understand conservation of roadless land is good for fish and wildlife and a broad array of sportsmen’s interests.”

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