Baucus to sponsor Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act

 By MATT GOURAS Associated Press

HELENA - U.S. Sen. Max Baucus announced Friday he will sponsor a bill to expand the wilderness on the Rocky Mountain Front, saying the proposal has a good chance of being the first wilderness designation in the state since the early 1980s.

Conservationists who have been working on the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act for about six years tout the measure as a compromise among varied groups aimed at keeping development and road access on the Front at its current levels. Opponents have said more wilderness designations could hinder access, mineral exploration and ranching operations.

The act, which Baucus said he would introduce this congressional session, would add 67,000 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It would designate more than 200,000 acres as a conservation management area that would limit road building.

Supporters said the aim is to essentially freeze use at current levels, while assuring grazing leases, motorized access and other activities can continue as they do now.

Baucus, who called the area a sportsman's paradise and a "crown jewel of the West," said that by focusing specifically on the Rocky Mountain Front, this bill has a better chance than much broader and more ambitious Montana wilderness proposals that have failed over the past 25 years. The act would cover a scenic region where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains, stretching north of Lincoln toward Glacier National Park.

"I believe that all of us have a moral obligation that we leave this place, because none of us are going to be here forever, to leave this place in better shape than we found it," Baucus said.

Baucus said he thinks the chances of the measure getting out of Congress are "quite good," although he doesn't plan on pushing the bill before the end of the year as other priorities loom.

"This is bottom-up, not top-down," Baucus said of the proposal advocates brought to him. "This is made in Montana. I think that goes a long way."

Baucus said he thinks the long list of groups that have signed onto the project did a good job of minimizing conflicts that can make it difficult to find consensus in Washington, D.C. If the bill is going to get enough votes to clear the Senate and then the House, some Republicans will have to sign onto it.

Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg is clearly taking a wait-and-see approach, but a spokesman did not rule out eventual support for the measure in a statement.

"Denny believes that while there are places in Montana that may be appropriate for new wilderness designation, those decisions ought to be built on consensus," Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said. "That's why Denny will continue to seek input from the affected communities in order to determine what impact this legislation may have on job creation and the economy."

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is separately proposing a measure that would expand wilderness in other areas, primarily in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest while also mandating that the U.S. Forest Service log more acres each year. The bill has run into some resistance from Democrats in Washington worried about the increased logging, and from Republicans opposed to the wilderness component.

Baucus said he also continues to support Tester's proposal. Rehberg, who is running against Tester for the Senate seat, is opposing that plan.