Front act gives all place on landscape

By R. Fred Fitzpatrick

It doesn't matter who you are, or where you come from. The first time you see the Rocky Mountain Front rising up from the plains you can't help but feel moved.

I've ridden a lot of trails and worked with many of the people who live on the Front. Over the years I've come to realize that both the wild country and the working landscapes deserve our respect and care. The Front is one of those rare places where folks are firmly rooted in their ranching and agricultural heritage but willing to look forward and plan for the future rather than be swept up in the ultimate changes that are taking place, with regard to people seeking that all so elusive last best place to build a trophy home.

Why else would ranchers be willing to place conservation easements on their properties? Why else did folks support a travel plan for the U.S. Forest Service lands that wholeheartedly honors horse-packing, hiking and other traditional forms of backcountry use? Or cheered when Sen. Max Baucus found a way for oil and gas leasing on the Front to end?

The answer is the same in every case; it is better to find a solution that protects the natural and cultural values than fight endlessly and watch it slowly slip away.

That's why the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front has taken an in-depth look at how best to keep the Rocky Mountain Front the way it is now. They understand safeguarding the Rocky Mountain Front is an investment for generations of Americans and also looks after the people who depend on these lands for their livelihoods.

The product of this group of ranchers, sportsmen, outfitters and conservationists is the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. It's loaded with common-sense legislative tools that provide direction and resources to prevent and control noxious weeds, ensures traditional access to public lands is prioritized, and protects traditional uses and people's right to use and make a living from the land.

As local business owner and coalition member Roy Jacobs put it so well in a recent article, "We've come up with one of the most innovative conservation packages ever written."

This proposal takes a broad look at 400,000 acres of public land along the Front and figures out what makes sense for each acre and tries to give everybody a place on the landscape. Ranchers can still graze their cattle; motorcycles, snowmobilers and ATV users still have trails they can access; folks can still gather firewood; and horsemen and hikers can still access the backcountry. In addition, private property owners are going to gain peace of mind of knowing what they see outside their windows is still going to be around for their children and grandchildren.

The Heritage Act was recently introduced to the general public of Montana. The coalition is hosting a series of public presentations around the state to exhibit their proposal and gather meaningful feedback to garner more public support and seek comments that could possibly even help improve it. The coalition has also put up a new Web site where folks can go to find out more about the proposal and check maps, become a citizen supporter, and help improve it by letting them know what you think -

From my perspective, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is a home grown, made-in-Montana proposal that will help keep the Front the way it is and protect a way of life that we all have grown to enjoy. It's a pretty straightforward and common-sense deal without any complicated provisions or departures from existing laws. It deserves an honest discussion, and it's time for that discussion to happen. Get involved.

R. Fred Fitzpatrick is a business owner from Valier and a longtime member of the East Slope Backcountry Horsemen.