Montana Representative Greg Gianforte is trying to win support in Congress for more roadbuilding on public lands. Conservationists say he’s trying to turn back the clock to policies that proved unsustainable.
On Tuesday, Gianforte chaired a House subcommittee hearing focused on road closures and access on U.S. Forest Service lands.
"Unfortunately the Forest Service seems to be moving away from its its original multiple use mission. Although Congress has directed the Forest Service to manage land for grazing, recreation and wildlife habitat, among other things, the Forest Service has locked up our public lands instead," said Gianforte.
Gianforte also said the Service is under pressure to close and decommission roads due to burdensome and inconsistent policies, lack of proper maintenance and the threat of litigation. He said the result is that recreators can’t get to the places they love, timber sits unharvested and firefighters have trouble knocking back wildfire.
Gianforte invited a panel to weigh in that included a county commissioner from Oregon, the director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, a retired deputy chief of the Forest Service and Montana state representative Kerry White.
White is also a member of the group Citizens for Balanced Use, which often fights road closures on public lands.
"The emotional impact that these closures have on a father or a grandfather that cannot take their kids or their grandkids to those places they shared with their father or their grandfather before them, as there is a closed gate or obliterated road," said White.
But Montana-based environmental groups disagree that removing roads limits access.
"The public's not being denied access," said Keith Hammer with Swan View Coalition. "The roads are being closed off to their vehicles, not to the people."
Hammer says the Forest Service changed its own rules in 2005 to address changing uses on forest roads, like the popularization of Off Highway Vehicles.
"The writing has been on the wall and studied to death for decades that they need a smaller road system to be able to afford to maintain it and have quality public access and motorized access on the roads that it should keep, and get rid of the roads that are just burning a hole in the public's wallet while it's trashing fish and wildlife," said Hammer.
Hammer says that the Forest Service’s current 370,000 miles of roads are already more than enough and that often, when roads are closed, it’s still possible to access them on foot or in some cases drive around the closure.
He calls concern about access for an aging population a smokescreen. He says this hearing was really about opening lands for extractive industries.
"This isn't really about recreation," said Hammer. "This is all about being able to get log trucks into every corner of the National Forest to cut the forest down and haul those logs to a private mill for private profit and the public gets left holding the bag in terms of paying for all of it."
Kathleen Williams is running against Gianforte in the upcoming November midterms. She called the hearing an oversimplification of a complex, place-based issue.
"We need to ensure we're not interpreting multiple use as every single use on all miles of forest service road," said Williams. "The Forest Service, in my opinion, is always in a constant balancing challenge on how to provide those multiple uses which often means that public use, for example, in critical wildlife areas, needs to be compatible with that kind of management directive that they have for those areas."
Williams said she would like to see management decisions, like closing roads, made at the local level with input from stakeholder groups.
The roads and access hearing Gianforte held Tuesday comes as he’s trying to drum up support for his Unlocking Public Lands Act and Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, which would open up almost 690,000 acres of wilderness study areas on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands in Montana to logging, mechanized travel and mining.