Baucus to Introduce Front plan

Great Falls Tribune

Written by JOHN S. ADAMS

HELENA — U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced Friday that he will sponsor the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act in Congress.

The long-anticipated bill, which Baucus said he plans to introduce this session, would add 67,000 acres of new wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The measure also would designate another 208,000 acres as conservation management areas, which would limit road building but allow current motorized recreation and public access for hunting, biking, timber thinning and grazing.

The measure prioritizes noxious-weed eradication and prevention on the designated public lands, which supporters say will help protect adjacent private working lands.

"This is a made-in-Montana effort to maintain a way of life we love so much in our state," Baucus told about 40 supporters at Montana Outdoor Sports, a sporting goods store near Helena's downtown.

Supporters of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act had long-hoped — and many anticipated — that Baucus would introduce the measure this session.

Baucus said he has worked for more than a decade to permanently withdraw from development sensitive lands along the Front. He wrote a provision, which that passed in 2006, that permanently bars oil and gas development along the Front. In January, he announced that he helped secure voluntary agreements from five energy companies to relinquish oil and gas leases on nearly 29,000 acres of the Front adjacent to Glacier National Park.

Baucus said anybody who currently has grazing leases in the designated areas will be able to continue to graze animals there.

"We want to maintain not just outfitting, but the tradition of ranching as a way of life," Baucus said.

Quoting famous Montana outdoorsman and artist Charlie Russell, Baucus said, "Guard, protect and cherish your land, for there is no afterlife for a place that started as heaven."

Baucus said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials estimate that there were 90,000 hunter days on the Front in 2010, and that sportsmen contributed $10 million annually from 2006 through 2010 during hunting season on the Front.

It's too soon to say how Baucus' bill will fare in the divided Congress.

It's been more than 28 years since Congress passed a wilderness bill specific to Montana. In 1988, Republican Conrad Burns was elected to the U.S. Senate after incumbent Democrat John Melcher succeeded at getting a Montana wilderness bill through Congress, only to have it vetoed by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who defeated Burns in 2006, has so far struggled to get his signature public lands bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, passed.

Tester's bill calls for logging on 70,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and 30,000 acres of the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years. The FJRA designates 369,501 acres for recreation areas, and 666,260 acres for wilderness, while releasing 11 wilderness study areas that have been managed as wilderness since the 1977 passage of former Montana Sen. Lee Metcalf's Wilderness Study Act.

The measure, which has so far stalled in committee, recently was included in the fiscal year 2012 Interior Appropriations Bill.

Baucus said he supports the approach Tester took in trying to pass the FJRA, but said that's not how he plans to get the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act through Congress.

"I want it to go straight through committee," Baucus said.

He said he expects that his measure will eventually be included in a larger public lands bill that includes other states.

Baucus said he recognizes that not everyone supports everything in the bill, but said there is very little opposition to the act.

"There are no conflicts of any significant degrees," he said. "And we have minimized conflicts as much as possible."

However, not all supporters of Rocky Mountain Front conservation back Baucus' approach.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would actually result in fewer environmental protections for the region.

Garrity said the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which is expected to be re-introduced in Congress next week, would designate as wilderness all areas currently managed as wilderness under the roadless rule.

"(The heritage act) opens up the area to logging and road building. It protects just a miniscule amount of the area currently protected — under the roadless rule — as wilderness," Garrity said. "Ninety percent of the area covered by the (heritage act) (would be) opened up for building new roads and logging, which is currently prohibited under the roadless rule."

Baucus said some of the problems past wilderness bills have faced in Congress are a lack of local support and over-reaching goals.

"Past wilderness bills have been too ambitious, too big of a bite," Baucus said. "This is much smaller."

Reach Tribune Capital Bureau Chief John S. Adams at 442-9493, or Follow him on Twitter @mt_lowdown.