The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act recently introduced by Sen. Tester falls short of finding the best solutions to opposing views on management of public lands. The recent debate (see "War of words," Sept. 3, 2009) has correctly identified many of the concerns for designating new wilderness areas under this bill by highlighting the poorly written and precedent-setting provisions to allow helicopter landings for military training and motor vehicle access to water developments and for trailing sheep. If left unchanged, these provisions would go beyond previous exceptions to the public and legal definition of wilderness, established in the Wilderness Act of 1964, and needlessly lead to setting the wrong example for other legislation to follow, both in Montana and elsewhere, and surely invite misinterpretation and future litigation.
One solution would be to clarify the language in the bill so that motorized access to wilderness is limited to only what is the minimum necessary. This could be accomplished by avoiding the creation of new and unspecified provisions "to uniquely fit Montana" and instead use language from existing special provisions (such as the Congressional Wilderness Grazing Guidelines) that apply to all existing wilderness areas within the national forests and allow for necessary and reasonable access within established constraints. In addition, the bill could direct the U.S. Forest Service to identify comparable and feasible locations for helicopter landings, outside of areas to be designated as wilderness, to honor the existing agreement with Peak Enterprises for military training exercises.
An even better solution is to refrain from designating lands with existing and necessary motorized access issues as new wilderness areas just to satisfy the need for more wilderness acres. If the basic conflict is over managing lands for timber production versus recreation and conservation purposes then wilderness designation is part of the solution but not the only option. A solution "created from the bottom up," as Tester desires, would designate the lands that will continue to require motorized access as Protection Areas or Recreation Areas (two categories used for other lands addressed in the bill) instead of wilderness. If this were the case, the lands here in Montana would be protected and available for a variety of back-country public recreation purposes and existing valid motorized uses and agreements would be honored without compromising the uses, values and benefits of wilderness protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964 and potentially the future of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Tester would then have a Forest Jobs and Recreation Act that could become a "model for the West" in terms of collaboration and creative solutions for management of the public lands.