HELENA – Montana lawmakers prodded federal officials Wednesday for facts and reasons explaining the closure of roads on public lands around the state.
Members of the Environmental Quality Council took their first look at data detailing road access at a quarterly meeting in Helena.
Information from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service shows at least 1,000 miles of the roughly 32,000 miles of federally controlled roads in Montana are closed to cars, trucks and snowmobiles.
Sponsor of the legislative study, Rep. Kerry White of Bozeman, and other Republicans on the council contend the agencies are mismanaging public roads. But federal officials who attended the meeting said the roads are closed for routine reasons ranging from wildlife preservation to the protection of water quality.
“I can say no roads have been closed for the sole reason of inability to maintain it,” said George Bain, a regional director at the Forest Service. “They’re purposefully closed.”
Road access may be increased if competing conservation and recreation industries could strike a balance, Bain said.
Representatives of various wilderness organizations suggested the federal agencies need financial or tactical support. Bain disagreed.
“It’s not a budget problem. But there are budget considerations in there – trade-offs like which roads are to be closed when,” Bain said. “We have to close that gap of what we want to have, need to have and can afford to have.”
For White, a closed public road is oxymoronic. “I don’t think the public knows the extent of what they’ve lost,” he said.
White said his constituents have voiced anxiety over accessing public lands for hunting, fishing, berry picking and firewood collection. He said he worries the road closures could affect wildfire management.
“I’d like to see the state partner with the federal agencies to try to keep some of these accesses open,” he said.
White said the inquiry into road access is unrelated to other proposals of his aimed at transferring federal lands to state control.
Committee Chairman Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda, has said the Environmental Quality Council will not take up the issue of federal-to-state land transfers during his tenure.
The roads study will continue through 2016. Any resulting bills would have to pass the Legislature as a whole and receive the governor’s signature.