Baucus still mulling Rocky Mountain Heritage Act

Karl Puckett - Great Falls Tribune

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., praised the cooperation he said went into crafting legislation to protect 275,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front, telling a supportive crowd of 125 people in Great Falls on Thursday that he would soon decide whether to back the effort.

Baucus said his effort in 2006 to prevent oil and gas leasing on the Front "meant a lot to me." Baucus pushed a provision in the tax bill that year that gave incentives to oil and gas companies to relinquish leases.

"This is, in many respects, the next step," Baucus said of the draft Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act to applause.

However, Baucus said he still needs answers to a few questions before making up his mind whether to carry the bill in Congress. At the Great Falls meeting, he asked for more information about the economic benefits of outdoor activities on the Front and imminent threats to it.

"Bottom line, we want to find a solution that basically makes the most sense so we have a better idea what the future holds for the Front," Baucus said.

At the invitation of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, which crafted the proposal, Baucus listened to public comments on the plan at hearings Thursday in Helena, Augusta and at Montana State University-Great Falls College of Technology.

Another such meeting is today in Choteau.

Montana has 6 million acres of lands suitable for wilderness consideration, and 3.4 million acres of designated wilderness. No wilderness additions have occurred since 1983.

The Front bill proposes five areas totaling 67,000 acres for wilderness ? the headwaters of the West Fork of the Teton River, Our Lake and its basin, Deep Creek valley, Patrick Basin and Falls Creek valley.

The proposal also calls for keeping 208,000 acres in roadless status in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, from the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch south to Rogers Pass.

Federal funding to help control the spread of noxious weeds also would be sought. Grazing would continue under the proposal.

Baucus said he understood that some people want more wilderness and others want less.

"I'm impressed with the effort that's gone into this, especially with the effort to compromise," he said.

The Front proposal first was unveiled in 2009. Acreage in the Helena National Forest that was suggested for wilderness protection in the original proposal has been dropped from the plan.

The coalition's Mike Aderhold, a former regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said the oil and gas and travel plan wars over the past 20 years drove competing interest groups to craft a compromise.

"All that knockin' around during those debates, we formed relationships with people on the other side of the fence," he said.

Aderhold said he was encouraged that Baucus agreed to attend the meetings.

"The fact he's agreed to come out here shows that he's interested," Aderhold said. "We just have to show him there's enough support to warrant his interest."

Baucus had a lot of good things to say about the state's outdoors Thursday, mentioning a recent hike he took in Yellowstone National Park, and quoting late-great Western painter Charlie Russell, who wrote, "Guard, protect and cherish your land, because there is no afterlife for a place that started out as heaven."

He said Montanans have a moral obligation to leave the land in the same or better condition as they found it.

Meanwhile, speakers pressed Baucus to introduce the bill.

"I hope you can use your influence with your colleagues the way Lee Metcalf did," said Arlene Reichert, referring to the former U.S. senator from Montana and early co-sponsor of the Wilderness Act, whose efforts led to the creation of the The Great Bear Wilderness and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Karl Puckett at 406-791-1471, 800-791-1471 or kpuckett@greatfalls