Backers say Front proposal ready for Congress


Tribune Capitol Bureau • May 27, 2010

HELENA — Supporters of the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act — a bill that would designate approximately 86,000 acres of new wilderness and protect an additional 218,000 acres from most new road construction along the Rocky Mountain Front — say the measure is ready for congressional consideration. 

However, critics of the proposal said the measure falls far short of adequately protecting what many people believe are some the nation's last best wildlands. 

Last fall, the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, the group spearheading the measure, set out to ease concerns of interested stakeholders by holding a series of public meetings around the region. The group hosted meetings in Great Falls, Helena, Choteau and Augusta to explain the details of the measure to the public and solicit feedback.

Supporters said those efforts culminated in a re-worked draft of the bill that attempts to strike a balance between the concerns of area ranchers, landowners, conservationists, sportsmen and outdoor recreationists.

"People made suggestions, the coalition listened, and the proposal was modified to accommodate those changes that were important," said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Derek Brown, a member of the coalition.

Brown pointed to the number of acres proposed for new federal wilderness designation as an example of how the measure reached a common ground.

"About half the people said they wanted more (wilderness) and half the people said they wanted less. Well, we must have done a really good job," Brown said. "You're not going to make all of the people 100 percent happy all the time."

Some wilderness advocates say the 86,000 acres targeted for federal protection is precisely what makes the Heritage Act a poorly crafted bill.

Paul Edwards is a property owner along the Rocky Mountain Front and a former member of the coalition. He said he left the group several years ago, after it became obvious to him that the group was compromising too heavily on wilderness designations in order to appease a small number of neighboring landowners.

"I've felt from the beginning that this was a totally inadequate approach to protecting what is some of the last great wilderness in Montana," Edwards said. "In reading this bill, it's very obvious that it was a laboriously crafted effort to enlist local landowners' support, when many of those landowners are totally antiwilderness." 

  Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said it was important that the bill not be too heavy handed if it's going to garner enough public support to become law. 

 "It's a proposal of inclusion, so we think this strikes a balance," Sharpe said. "The locals along the Front, business people, would not be accepting of 'Big W' all the way out to the border of their private land. It just wouldn't work." 

 Wilderness advocates such as Edwards dismiss the notion that local landowners should have more sway than any other American when it comes to protecting public lands. 

 "Federal land belongs to all Americans. It doesn't belong to a particular individual whose great-great-grandfather settled the neighboring land 100 years ago," Edwards said. "This is the last relatively pristine, undamaged wild country, and they're going to not protect it in order to cater to the prejudices and the self interests of these massive antiwilderness and, frankly, relatively ecologically unconscious people. I take exception to that. I think it's wrong."

Some of the key components of the draft proposal include:


  • Adding 85,910 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas;
  • Designating 218,327 acres of surrounding public lands as conservation management areas;
  • Designating 434,237 acres as noxious weed management areas, including parts of the Badger-Two Medicine area;
  • A provision that states that the U.S. Forest Service can build "temporary roads" on some lands to manage insects and disease, fuel reduction projects and access for firewood gathering;
  • Allows continued grazing without significant changes within the conservation management areas and designated wilderness areas;
  • Requires the Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management to prioritize noxious weed management; and 
  • A provision that allows nonwilderness activities such as grazing and logging to continue in areas adjacent to wilderness. Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools payments will not be affected by the proposal.

    Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, opposes the Heritage Act primarily because it allows for logging and road building in areas currently protected as de facto wilderness under the current roadless rule.

    "They want to open that up to logging," Garrity said of the coalition's proposal. "This area along the Rocky Mountain Front — that everybody agrees is a premier area in the United States as far as wildlife value for lynx, grizzly bears, goshawks — is being protected under the roadless rule. They are going to weaken that protection in return for a token amount of wilderness."

    The measure's supporters said compromise is necessary if Montanans want to add additional protections along the Front.

    "We live in a changing world that demands new approaches and new strategic partnerships and alliances to get something resolved," Sharpe said. "That's what this whole effort is."

    Coalition members said they have met with all three members of Montana's congressional delegation about the proposed bill. So far Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both Democrats, and Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, have not indicated if they plan to carry the bill.

    "As far as moving it forward with a sponsor, I don't know that there's any ticking clock. There's no urgency to it," Sharpe said. "But I certainly think we've crossed all the T's and dotted all the I's."