Critics of Front plan call for more wilderness

KARL PUCKETT Great Falls Tribune

October 1, 2009

A plan to conserve almost 400,000 acres of public land on the Rocky Mountain Front was highly praised by some people at its public unveiling Wednesday in Great Falls, but sharply criticized by some conservationists who said it lacked enough wilderness designation for such a pristine landscape.

"We make a mistake in foregoing an opportunity for greater protection for these lands when nationally and I think, locally, the odds are on our side for support," said Tom Kotynski of Great Falls, who authored a book on hiking on the Front.

He noted the Democratic control of the White House and Congress, and said the proposed wilderness acreage in the plan should be just a starting point, adding he could not imagine a bill that does not seek wilderness for such Front icons as Old Man of the Hills, Mt. Frazier, Choteau Mountain and Volcano Reef.

"I don't think it will work, and I think we can do better," said Stuart Lewin, a Great Falls attorney.

Other people defended the plan, saying it strikes a compromise between varying interests and stands the best chance of appealing to politicians in Washington, D.C., and local residents.

"We're trying to protect a giant landscape versus my little spot, and the hell with the rest of it," said Roy Jacobs of Pendroy, a business owner and hunter involved in the plan.

Chuck Jennings, a physician from Great Falls and a member of the coalition, introduced his grandchildren at the beginning of the meeting and said the plan does a good job of protecting the Front for future generations.

"I'm afraid if we want it all, we're not going to get anything," he said later in the meeting.

The meeting, which drew about 200 people, was the first of four meetings on the three-part Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would:

  • Add 86,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear wilderness areas;
  • Add a higher level of protection, called a "conservation management area" for another 307,000 acres in the Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests; and
  • Require the U.S. Forest Service to write a plan curbing the spread of noxious weeds, while seeking an additional $200,000 over 10 years for local and state governments to fight weeds.

Jennifer Ferenstein of the Northern Rockies office of the Wilderness Society told the crowd that the aim of the legislation is to prevent harmful development such as the spread of weeds and off-highway vehicle use, which has harmed other areas of Montana such as the Gallatin Valley.

"This is not the future anyone wants for the Rocky Mountain Front," she said.

The plan would protect access for grazing, quiet recreation and outfitting businesses, she said. Existing motorized use would be protected in the 307,000 acres of conservation management areas, but no expansion of that use would be allowed, she said.

Ferenstein said the plan will be taken to the state's congressional delegation in a few months. Wednesday's meeting is the first of four planned by the coalition to gather comments that could lead to modifications, she said.

About 15 people gave testimony during the nearly two-hour meeting.

Anders Blewett, a state representative from Great Falls, asked whether mountain biking would be allowed in the expanded wilderness areas. Gabe Furshong, a staff person with the Montana Wilderness Association who has helped to organize the Front proposal, said it would not be, but added biking would be allowed in the CMA lands.

Dennis Tighe, a member of the Montana Wilderness Association and president of the Friends of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, asked whether the 307,000 acres that would be placed under conservation management are not as valuable as the lands the coalition is calling for to be placed in wilderness, the strongest form of protection.

Furshong said the CMA would encompass areas where there are more uses of the land, allowing more flexibility. Some of the lands within the proposed CMA are wilderness-quality he said, adding that he believes the CMA keeps them as they are.

"I say bully to Teddy Roosevelt, and I say bully to this proposal," said former Great Falls Mayor Randy Gray, citing the former conservation-minded president's comments in 1903 that the Grand Canyon should remain "as it is."

Areas near protected lands are good for the labor force because people want to locate near them, Gray added.

"By saving this kind of place, it helps our economic future as Montanans," he said.

Editor's Note: Tom Kotynski is a former Great Falls Tribune employee.