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Wilderness Study Areas are making Montana wildfires worse

By Rep. Bill Harris

This past year saw devastating wildfires across Montana—but none was so destructive as the Lodgepole Complex fire in Garfield and Petroleum counties. The Lodgepole fire was the largest in the country, ultimately destroying over 270,000 acres and devastating hundreds of families.

Could that destruction have been prevented? That’s a question that we can never answer fully. But one factor that undeniably made this fire worse was where it started.

The Lodgepole fire was sparked by a lighting strike in Sandage Coulee, in the heart of a Wilderness Study Area (WSA).

I can’t over-emphasize the significance of this fact. As a Wilderness Study Area, this several thousand-acre area has very strict rules for access and firefighting. There are no roads. Motorized vehicles are not allowed. They are grazed only lightly and no timber management is permitted, allowing for fuel to build up to distorted levels.

The BLM is prohibited from constructing improvements such as water pipelines. And the only fire suppression that is allowed is that which can be done by firefighters on foot with what they can carry on their backs. Even aerial support is not allowed.

No attempt was made to put out the fire until it cross the WSA boundary. It was allowed to grow in the beginning because BLM’s hands were tied by the Wilderness Study Area rules. By the time the fire exploded and BLM was able to send in additional resources, it was too late—the fire was out of control.

What’s incredibly frustrating about this situation is that the federal government studied this area and determined it was not suitable for a wilderness designation. That was nearly 35 years ago, and still the temporary Wilderness Study Area designation has not been lifted. Meanwhile, this area is treated as de facto wilderness.

I saw all of this unfold firsthand. The Lodgepole fire started near my ranch and burned up a good deal of it. I pleaded with BLM managers to do something to stop this fire and watched as their fire crews waited at the WSA boundaries. I’m not blaming BLM—as long as this area remains a WSA, they have to follow their regulations
The point is that this area never should have been locked up as a WSA. It should have been released years ago after it was determined the land was not suitable for wilderness. Now, hundreds of Montana families have paid a dear price for Washington’s failure.

This is why I am so thankful that Senator Daines as proposed legislation to finally release a number of WSAs across the state—nearly 450,000 acres worth.

By releasing these WSAs, federal agencies will be enabled to bring the fight to future fires—rather than sitting on their hands until it’s too late.

Beyond that, the lands locked up as WSAs are the public’s land, and they should be made available for the public’s use. But today, we are locked out of hundreds of thousands of acres of public land around Montana.

Senator Daines’s legislation, while releasing only a handful of WSAs in Montana, is a positive step toward increasing public access for hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities. And, these public lands will be allowed to be properly managed by BLM and other land management agencies.

As this last summer proved, living near a WSA can be a dangerous situation. We can’t go back and undo the damage that was done in 2017, but at the very least, we should take the appropriate steps to prevent it from repeating in the future.

Rep. Bill Harris represents HD 37, which includes several eastern Montana counties. He serves on the House Judiciary and Agriculture committees.