Coalition of apparent contradictions works to protect Front

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian  Monday, May 31, 2010

Editor's note: This is the conclusion of a two-day series on the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

DUPUYER - A rancher who loves grizzly bears.

A taxidermist who's fed up with hunting.

A country girl who's gone to work for a national environmental group.

They've convinced oil companies to stop drilling. They've got state and federal agencies to start talking. And now they're all campaigning to save a landscape that seems to hate people.

The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front combines as many apparent contradictions as the landscape it defends. Take Karl Rappold. He has 1,000-pound grizzly bears roaming his homestead and hasn't lost a cow since 1959.

"See that - that's the hood of my truck," Rappold said of a gray strip on the bottom of a snapshot of a huge sow grizzly and three yearling cubs. It's the third group of triplets the sow has raised alongside his 300 head of cattle.

Everybody survives because Rappold runs far fewer cattle than his land could support. Doing it that way means his pastures don't get overgrazed, and the other wildlife thrives. The big bears occasionally wander through his stockyards, but they have no taste for the stock.

"We've been ranching here for 128 years," Rappold said. "That's what's kept the Front in the pristine shape it's in. It has limited access to the Front, and sustained the landscape. The working landscape has made it what it is today."


That working landscape has only supported a few thousand people over that time. Chinook winds frequently blow more than 100 mph. The soil turns to slick mud at the slightest rain, and last week it rained 4 inches in 24 hours. The forests on the mountain slopes are too spindly for marketable timber, and the 200-year-old limber pines on the ridgetops grow 20 feet long but only 6 inches wide.

Rappold's main community issue has been to support conservation easements. The easements give ranchers cash for giving up the right to chop up their big spreads into little hobby farms and vacation homes.

So he wasn't initially interested when Roy Jacobs approached him with the idea to turn big chunks of the Rocky Mountain Front into designated wilderness, as proposed in the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

He warned that would aggravate local ranchers accustomed to grazing their livestock on U.S. Forest Service land at the base of the mountains. Although federal wilderness areas allow grazing, the ranchers were leery of outsiders coming in with a bunch of

new rules.

"Everybody was in agreement that the traditional uses needed to stay in place," Rappold said. "For me, it all had to come together for both public and private land."


Jacobs also grew up at the foot of the Front, in the Teton County seat of Choteau. He's grown frustrated at hunters who've let weapons technology substitute for woodland skill as they pursue the biggest bucks and bulls. But he's made a good living for 30 years preserving the results as a taxidermist.

He's also spent most of that time agitating to preserve the Front's rich diversity of wildlife habitat. Since he and Choteau elementary school teacher Gene Sentz started Friends of the Front back in 1977, it's grown to include farmers, horse riders, state government officials, the former mayor of Great Falls, and ranchers like Rappold.

"It's been fairly difficult to keep it together," Jacobs said over breakfast in Choteau's Outpost Deli. "If you took a vote, we'd be in pretty good shape. There's a vocal opposition that raises hell. But a statewide poll showed

69 percent supported our idea."

Rappold and Jacobs agree that what finally got everyone pulling together was the possibility that oil and gas drilling would continue along the base of the mountains. As many as 153,000 acres had been leased for energy development, although only a few wells were producing anything of value.


The Wilderness Society was one of the chief pushes behind negotiations to end those energy leases. Its Teton County representative, Holly Baker, said one of the biggest challenges was getting people comfortable with the idea of change.

Baker was "the kid they called the ‘tree-hugger' " growing up in Choteau. She recalled one old rancher asking her what wilderness was, and why he should be bothered with it. Those kinds of questions prompted the coalition to focus on tradition rather than change, she said.

Now she spends a lot of time explaining what the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is not. It won't take tax money away from local county governments, because it won't affect any private property or federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes support. It won't require any land swaps between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (although that was once considered). It won't prevent the Forest Service from fighting wildfires.

The act would cover a long strip of the Rocky Mountain Front between U.S. Highways 2 and 200, or from East Glacier to Lincoln. It would, Baker said, protect and perpetuate most of the activities Front users now enjoy.

Its biggest effort would cover 434,237 acres under a new noxious weed management plan. (See accompanying story.)

About 86,000 acres would be designated as six new wilderness areas. And another 218,327 acres between those wilderness zones and the private land would become a Conservation Management Area where people could still use chain saws and vehicles for things such as collecting firewood, cutting posts and poles, and herding livestock.

Not much would change, Baker said. That's the whole idea.

"People here don't want to be interfered with," she said. "My dad's a fourth-generation rancher. It's hard to make a living here. But I really feel like the people of Choteau are here because they want to be here, and they want the land taken care of."