Montana is blessed with a bounty of public lands that are still pristine – places where all Americans can go to experience solitude, that provide the cornerstone for our hunting and fishing heritage, and where nature is still free to run its course.
Millions of acres of public lands in Montana are “roadless,” a poor description for the last of the best of our public lands heritage. Many of these special places are of such high quality that they should be designated wilderness by Congress and made part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 directed federal natural resource agencies to survey all unroaded lands for possible wilderness designation. Most were surveyed by 1972, but not all of Montana's lands fitting the description were designated “Inventoried Roadless Areas.” Many of these “Uninventoried Roadless Areas” are just as spectacular and deserving of protection.
In 1998, the Forest Service declared an 18-month moratorium on road-building in national forests to inventory roads and lands and study the situation. After extensive review, process, and public comment, the "Roadless Rule" was adopted in 2001. One of the most significant conservation actions since the Wilderness Act of 1964, it does not necessarily protect roadless areas from development or prohibit all activities on these lands. It was, instead, aimed at controlling the amount of road-building by the United States Forest Service. The main purpose is to minimize the negative impact roads have on the environment.
Roadless Rule's impact
The rule has been incredibly important to our state and the Montana Wilderness Association as it works hard to protect key roadless lands -- our gift to future generations. Montana is one of only two states for which Congress has not passed statewide wilderness legislation to protect public roadless areas. As a result, 8 million acres of roadless federal lands in Montana are vulnerable to fragmentation and degradation from resource extraction, road construction, and motorized recreation. Many places, like the East Pioneers, Italian Peaks, Pryors, Big Snowies, Rocky Mountain Front, Whitefish Divide, Scotchman Peaks, and Great Burn that should be designated wilderness today, are not.
The Montana Wilderness Association and its members were instrumental in organizing public support for the Rule in Montana. Thousands of Montanans packed public hearings across the state, and 78% of the 16,000 comments from Montana supported the Rule (or requested a stronger rule). MWA also played a critical role in facilitating a strong defense of the Rule in the federal courts.
The Montana Wilderness Association has not only defended the Rule against attempts to weaken it, but has also been opportunistic in demonstrating continuing public support for roadless lands protections (such as organizing around county meetings held by the Governor as part of a possible state petition process); and, working within the Bush Administration’s roadless process to support strong protections for roadless lands (the Montana Wilderness Association’s former Vice President, Dale Harris of Missoula, is a Co-Chair of the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee). MWA has also pointed out the weaknesses of the Roadless Rule, which does not protect roadless lands from motorized use.
The Montana Wilderness Association will continue to support the protection of roadless lands, mobilize community-based support for the protection of local areas, and work for Wilderness designation for the most pristine of those special places.