Public lands are a critical part of the Western way of life. What you may not know is that there are millions of public lands that have been held hostage because of the inaction of Congress. In Montana there are still over 1 million acres that have been locked up.

As a fifth-generation Montanan, and an avid outdoorsman myself, I cherish our access to public lands and want to make sure we have access to them. After hearing from local communities and the Montana State Legislature, the need to address this issue was clear. That’s why I’ve introduced the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, legislation that will unlock almost 450,000 acres that have been kept from Montanans for thirty-five years.

Under President Carter, 973,000 acres of forest service lands in Montana were designated as Wilderness Study Areas to determine if they were suitable for wilderness or not. The study was designed to take five years, yet over forty years later; D.C. still has a lock on most these lands.

What does that mean for us who live in the West? It’s simple. It means that our families cannot enjoy this land. Families can’t mountain bike, hunt, snowmobile or ATV on these lands. Montanans can’t make traditions with their friends and families on these lands – all because D.C. paralysis has frozen public access to them.

While keeping these lands locked halts our way of life, it also stunts the economic growth that many states in the West count on. For example, Montana’s outdoor economy is over seven billion dollars. Countless Montanans depend on this land for their livelihood. Opening up non-wilderness, public lands to activities such as biking, snowmobiling and hunting will continue to drive economic growth in communities across Montana and the West.

While my bill focused on Montana, I believe we must look at all the areas in the West. My bill proposes that five study areas, all of which were already determined not suitable for wilderness by the Forest Service after extensive public feedback, be addressed. This would place almost 450,000 acres of Montana land back where it belongs — in the hands of Montanans.

Those five study areas were once accessible to Montanans, now it’s time we give them back. Public lands that are only accessible to a few are not public at all. I am committed to keeping public lands in public hands.

Steve Daines is a Republican U.S. Senator from Montana