Billings Gazette: Group proposes 800,000 acres of new wilderness

A Bozeman-based group has proposed wilderness designation for about 800,000 acres in the Custer Gallatin National Forest stretching from the West Yellowstone area to the Bridger, Crazy and Pryor Mountains.

“We are talking about protecting some of the top 1 or 2 percent of wild country in the lower 48,” said Phil Knight, of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, in a press release.

Although the group can submit a proposal, it is up to Congress to pass legislation designating wilderness. That happened in other states in 2019. With the passage of legislation 37 new wilderness areas were approved in California, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.

Montana legislators have been less wilderness friendly. In Montana in 2017, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines sought to remove 449,500 acres of Wilderness Study Areas from consideration. In 2018 in the U.S. House, then-Rep. Greg Gianforte drafted a bill that would remove WSA designations for 800,000 acres in Montana.

In 2010, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester drafted a bill to designate 600,000 acres of new wilderness mostly in southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. In exchange, the bill would have opened up logging on more than 100,000 acres.

After that measure failed to gain support, in 2017 Tester backed the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act which would add 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas.

Conservation groups have long touted the benefits of wilderness designation to the state, not only to protect important wildlife habitat, but also to ensure clean water in an ever-expanding human environment. As the COVID-19 pandemic has proven, wildlands also provide a place for solace contributing to better mental health in times of stress.

In its recently released forest management plan, the Custer Gallatin National Forest staff identified a little over 116,000 acres of recommended wilderness. The largest portion of that land, 70,000 acres, was along the Gallatin Crest south of Bozeman.

The GYWA chose lands in the Custer Gallatin National Forest because its “wild lands are some of the best wildlife habitat in the country, providing a home for grizzly bear, lynx, wolf, elk, moose, mountain goat, wolverine and bighorn sheep, and are the source of waters that support genetically pure Yellowstone and westslope cutthroat trout.

“The (Custer Gallatin National Forest) caps Yellowstone National Park like a crown of wild mountains. From Cowboy Heaven to the Tongue River Breaks, the Crazy Mountains to the Line Creek Plateau, the Gallatin Crest to Lionhead, the Beartooth Front to the Pryor Mountains, there is no other national forest like it,” the group said.

“It is not the nation’s wood box, nor should it be the nation’s outdoor gymnasium,” GYWA added.

The group also pointed to wildlands as critical for the movement of wildlife across the landscape. Wildlife migration corridors was a focus of the Trump administration and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.