Collaboration Key to Front Plan

KARL PUCKETT  Great Falls Tribune

Congress created instant wilderness nationwide 45 years ago when it passed the Wilderness Act, but the recipe for conserving public land today is akin to slow cooking, with more ingredients needed to satisfy varying tastes.

That's what advocates of a new conservation plan that would protect Montana's famed Rocky Mountain Front say.

"The name of the game now is collaboration," said Bill Cunningham of Choteau, a Bob Marshall Wilderness Area outfitter who has been involved in wilderness debates for decades.

Last week, the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front unveiled a conservation plan for 393,000 acres of public lands in the Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests.

New wilderness is part of the new plan — but so is a brand new designation with less teeth than a wilderness designation, but more protection for undeveloped roadless lands.

Additional funding to fight weeds, a tip of the hat to ranchers, also is part of the proposal.

Former Congressman Pat Williams, who introduced 16 wilderness bills between 1982 and 1994, said he had hearings on those bills, but members of the delegation tended to write them. The process has changed, he said.

"They wait for local folks to bring them a proposal that is mature, that has been collaborated with lots of meetings," he said.

The Front proposal is the result of three years of meetings and negotiations over protecting current uses, while also protecting the land from threats such as the spread of noxious weeds and travel by motorized vehicle, according to the coalition.

"ATV riders are going to places where they've never gone before," Choteau attorney Stoney Burke said.

Despite making compromises, coalition members say the bill still takes a landscape approach to protecting a key piece of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which also includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

"To develop this area would be like going into the Sistine Chapel and spray-painting it," said Randy Gray, the former mayor of Great Falls.

Gray said members of the state's congressional delegation no longer view it as their job to be the leaders in eliminating conflict on the local landscape.

As the last stretch of the Rocky Mountain range wild enough to support plains grizzly bears and most of the other wildlife that explorers Lewis and Clark saw, the stretch of jagged mountains and abutting plains needs formal protection, Cunningham said.

No other landscape like it exists between Mexico and Canada, he added.

The first of four public meetings on the proposed legislation, which would require congressional approval, is tonight.

However, not everybody is on board.

"It's a terrible proposal," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The coalition's plan calls for protecting 86,000 acres of public land, in two national forests, as wilderness.

Garrity's alliance believes that's not enough of the best protection — wilderness. The alliance instead is backing the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, a bill that would designate 24 million acres of roadless land in the northern Rockies as wilderness, including land along the Front.

In its plan, the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front is proposing to protect 307,000 roadless acreage with a new land classification called the conservation management area, or CMA, rather than with a wilderness designation.

"We think that will have the effect of protecting the land sufficiently," said Gloria Flora, a member of the coalition and the former supervisor of Lewis and Clark National Forest.

A new Forest Service travel plan for the area, which was approved last year, already places most area off limits to motorized use, she added.

The roadless land that would be placed under the CMA designation under the plan currently could be opened to more motorized use and logging in the future, but the CMA, because it would be congressionally approved, would keep it as it is permanently, Flora said.

Cunningham said a wilderness designation is the gold star of conservation. But with many people viewing designations as too restrictive, more tools are needed to protect wild land, he said.

"If we are trying to satisfy as many people as possible in order to get something accomplished, there needs to be compromise," he said.

Joe Dellwo, chairman of the Teton County Commission, said the coalition's Front proposal goes too far.

"We already have plenty of wilderness, and we don't need any more," he said.

Most of the constituents he's talked to take that stance as well, although they do back the group's pledge to seek an additional $200,000 in annual funding to fight noxious weeds, he said.

"We stand to lose in the future with the way it's written — in an area where we've already lost most of our access to anyway," said Russ Ehnes, president of the Great Falls Trail Bike Riders Association, who also is disappointed in the plan.

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which instantly created 9.5 million acres of new wilderness areas nationwide, including the Bob Marshall, Cabinet Mountains, Gates of the Mountains, Selway-Bitterroot, and Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness in Montana.

Other wilderness areas were added later. The state's last wilderness was set aside in 1983.