By Daniel Person
Bozeman (Montana) Chronicle
It's a short bill, as far as bills go.
In two pages, the 95th Congress designated 873,000 acres of national forest in Montana as "wilderness study areas" - places that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would study to see if they were fit for wilderness.
Within seven years of when the bill passed in 1977, the act said, USDA should share its findings with Congress, which, presumably, would either make that acreage wilderness or not.
But while the bill excelled in brevity, it lacked hard deadlines and specifics. Today, 33 years after the act passed, Congress has yet to decide on the hundreds of thousands of acres across the state, including 151,000 acres in the Gallatin Mountains that stretches from Hyalite Peak to Yellowstone National Park.
Dubbed the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, the debate over how the area south of Bozeman should be managed has become increasingly heated because of 39 words user groups can't seem to agree on: "The wilderness study areas designated by this act shall, until Congress determines otherwise, be administered by the Department of Agriculture so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System."
In the fight's most recent turn, the Gallatin National Forest this year set its most restrictive rules on summer use yet for the heart of the Gallatin Mountains.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the forest's previous plan, set in 2006 and allowing mountain biking on 240 miles of trail and motorcycling on 70 miles of trail, violated the Wilderness Study Act of 1977 because it did not the maintain "wilderness character" of the area.
Complicating matters, the judge wrote, was the fact that the forest didn't have good records about what the wilderness character was in 1977 in the first place.
In an attempt to comply with the judge's ruling, 60 miles of trail in the wilderness study area are open for mountain biking, 25 percent of what was available last year. Motorcyclists will be allowed to ride on 40 miles of trail.
The new rules have drawn various reactions. Wilderness advocates said the U.S. Forest Service made the right call, returning the Gallatins to what they say it actually looked like in 1977. Others said the agency overreacted to Molloy's ruling by shutting down trails that were open to bikes and motorcycles in 1977.
But it has also raised a question that resonates beyond the Gallatin Mountains: why won't Congress act on forest land it studied decades ago, and what should be done with the land in the meantime?
Earlier last month, with the snow finally melted from most of the Gallatin Mountain Range, wildflowers blanketed Windy Pass, a grassy reprieve from the ranges' 10,000-foot peaks.
As directed in the 1977 bill, the Forest Service studied Windy Pass and the peaks around it to see whether it should be designated wilderness. Its conclusion was that it should not. Throughout the area, the service found, were private tracts of logging land, whose owners held rights to build logging roads and clearcut the land.
"The chief impediment to the manageability of the area (as wilderness) is the private, checkerboard in-holdings," the service concluded in a 1985 study.
But Congress kept the area as a WSA following that finding, and things improved, as far as wilderness went. With the help of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and nonprofit groups, the Forest Service was able to acquire nearly 40,000 acres of land within the WSA boundary during the 1990s. That put the acres out of reach for logging and roads.
Still, no decision was made in Washington regarding the Gallatin Crest, nor six of the other seven WSAs created by the 1977 act.
Today, forest managers say, Congress' inaction leaves too little guidance as to how these thousands of acres should be managed, leaving them open to expensive lawsuits.
That fact was underscored in 2006 when the Gallatin National Forest's new travel plan drew two lawsuits for its regulations on the WSA: one stating it was too restrictive and another saying it was not restrictive enough.
And the matter is complicated by the fact that records of what the "wilderness character" of the WSA was in 1977 is sparse, leaving room for debate.
Take snowmobiles, for example.
A Gallatin National Forest report from 2003, citing conversations with some snowmobilers, found that while most of the WSA was "technically" open to snowmobiles in 1977, snowmobilers "actually only used a small portion of it."
Thus, recent travel plans have become increasingly restrictive in hopes of returning snowmobile use to what it was according to those interviewed.
"The Forest Service had allowed the whittling away of the wilderness character," said Joe Gutkoski, a member of Montanans for a Gallatin Wilderness, about its policies following the 1977 act. "Allowing timber sales within, roads within, allowing ATVs, motorbikes, snowmobiles, pedal bikes clawing all over the place.
"They should have preserved wilderness character from the get-go."
But Kerry White, a member of Citizens for Balanced Use, contends those interviews don't ring true. CBU is appealing snowmobile closures in the area to the Ninth Circuit Court.
"We submitted an actual flier put out in 1969 by the Forest Service where they were inviting people to come up (to the WSA) on snowmobiles," he said. "We just feel that's not fair. That's not a balanced decision."
In his ruling last year, Judge Molloy sympathized with the Forest Service, even though he ruled against it.
"The Wilderness Study Act imposes on the Forest Service the conflicting obligation to maintain the wilderness character of the Study Area as it existed in 1977," he wrote.
The onus, he said, lies on Congress to make a decision about the WSAs.
"Until Congress acts to resolve the issue, the Forest Service will be trapped between its administrative obligation to reasonably balance competing land uses and the statutory requirement that it maintain the 1977 wilderness character of the place," he wrote. "The tension between the law's inconsistent mandates can only be eased and resolved by Congress."
Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would ease some of that tension. Two wilderness study areas in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest - the Sapphire and West Pioneer WSAs - would see portions designated wilderness and other portions "released" from WSA designation.
But while that bill is being deliberated by Congress, decisions don't appear to be close for the Gallatin Crest.
Gutkoski, while complimenting Baucus for his work to clear the Gallatin WSA of private in-holdings, said the senator has shown little interest in introducing a bill to make the area wilderness.
Montanans for a Gallatin Wilderness had a brochure printed recently making the argument for wilderness designation.
"I've given that brochure to Max at least four different time. We keep reminding him of it and so forth. That's about as close to an official pursuit as we've gotten," he said.
White said he wants Congress to take the advice given to it back in 1985, when the Forest Service found the area unsuitable for wilderness.
"I'd like to see it removed from a study area and back into multiple-use management," he said. "When the Forest Service did their wilderness analysis, it did not qualify."
But, as exemplified by the fierce debate over Tester's bill, creating wilderness or eliminating it is a tough row to hoe, and it could be a while until a lawmaker has the political will to take on that rocky crest.
"I don't think Jon (Tester) wants it," Gutkoski said. "It's getting complex just doing the Beaverhead."
Daniel Person can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2665.