Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines has introduced a bill to eliminate wilderness study area designations on nearly 450,000 acres of federal lands in the state, a move he said will improve public access but was met with jeers from some conservation advocates.

Called the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, the bill moves to release five wilderness study areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service. If released, the lands would stay in federal control but restrictions on uses like logging and grazing and motorized use could be changed.

The bill targets study areas that the Forest Service didn’t recommend to become wilderness and all but two that were included in a resolution supporting release that was passed by the Montana Legislature last spring. The 151,000 acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area is not included in Daines’ bill.

During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Daines said the designations have been an impediment to Montanans’ ability to use the lands over the last few decades.

“I’m fixing that today,” he said.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Montana Wilderness Association criticized the bill as an attack on public lands.

“This is divisive legislation that at its core is an attempt by Senator Daines to sabotage the wilderness legacy that Montanans want to pass on to our children,” said John Todd, conservation director of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Montana has a few dozen wilderness study areas, most of which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Daines’ bill seeks to lift the designation from five of seven that are managed by the U.S. Forest Service: the West Pioneer, Blue Joint, Sapphire, Middle Fork Judith and the Big Snowies.

Those were five of nine study areas designated by the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act, a bill sponsored by then-U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf, a Democrat. That bill asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to recommend within five years whether the areas should become wilderness.

Two of the nine became wilderness, while the other seven remain as study areas, which are managed in a similar way to official wilderness areas. Daines said that should have changed at some point in the last few decades, and that his bill is “correcting the inaction of Congress.”

“It’s paralysis in Washington, D.C., that has frozen Montana’s access,” Daines said.

Todd disputed that, saying there have been legislative attempts in the past to deal with the wilderness study area designation.

“To say that these places have been languishing and have been stymied by paralysis is simply not true,” Todd said.

The bill does have support from motorized use advocates, some county commissioners near the study areas and mining industry groups.

Daines also said that releasing the study areas might help advance a bill seeking to ban new mining claims on 30,000 acres of public land east of the Paradise Valley, called the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act.

In the past, Daines has expressed uncertainty about whether that bill — sponsored by Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester — has a serious chance of passage. He said Thursday that the release of the study areas may help forge bipartisan support for that measure.

“Pairing these would be one path forward,” he said.

Dave Kuntz, a Tester spokesman, said in an emailed statement that supporters of the mineral withdrawal — which includes environmentalists and business owners in the Paradise Valley — aren’t seeking the removal of study area designations elsewhere in the state.

“They’re asking for unified support for the simple, straightforward bill that Jon is leading so we can get it across the finish line,” Kuntz said.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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