Front Heritage Act is a good compromise, partially satisfies most stakeholders


October 19, 2009

Thirty-five years ago, I was a young physician with the opportunity to practice in one of many different areas of the country. As a young boy growing up on a farm in Kansas, I was awestruck by the wild mountain country of Colorado, first encountered during a family vacation.

Through many years of education and professional training I retained the dream of someday living close to wild country. Great Falls was the size community that my wife and I desired and it was close to the most magnificent landscape I had ever seen.

At the time we assumed that it would remain that way. Fast forward 35 years and we see that Colorado's wild country is largely confined to Wilderness areas. Colorado's Rocky Mountain Front is a continuous megalopolis. I now see the potential for the same thing happening to our Rocky Mountain Front.

I have attended three of four public meetings recently held in Great Falls, Helena, Choteau, and Augusta to present the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a draft proposal crafted by the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, a group of people with diverse interests.

The group is made up of farmers, ranchers, outfitters, business people, lawyers, doctors, and teachers who have common interest in having the Rocky Mountain Front remain the way it is.

The RMF Heritage Act has arisen out of real concerns over what has happened in other areas of the Rocky Mountain West where private ranches and farms have been subdivided, unprotected public lands overrun by motorized use and exploited by petroleum and mineral development. This proposal is a result of many meetings and sometimes contentious debates over a three-year period.

Our Rocky Mountain Front is an unparalleled landscape in the lower 48 states.

Heretofore this landscape has been protected from subdivision and commercial development by private landowners who for generations have maintained their lands through sustainable practices and wise business management.

They have done this in partnership with federal agencies, the Forest Service and the BLM, who grant them permits for their livestock to graze on these public lands, including designated wilderness areas.

In turn, ranchers have provided forage for wildlife that moves in and out of adjacent wilderness areas.

The Rocky Mountain Front is a huge area of public land, roughly 130 miles in length, bordering the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wildernesses. Some of this land is of wilderness quality, protected from degradation by good U.S. Forest Service travel planning in cooperation with local landowners.

The concern of the folks who crafted this proposal is that this country will not remain the same unless it has formal legal protection.

At present all regulations are subject to change by administrative act and political pressure. It is the feeling of the coalition that the current travel plan, if maintained by law, will assure protection for this landscape in perpetuity.

The coalition has produced a homegrown solution that will leave most people partially satisfied, which is the hallmark of any good compromise.

The proposal requests increased appropriation of money for weed control (a major threat to agriculture), creates an entity called a Conservation Management Area, which is less restrictive than wilderness, including motorized and mountain bike use, and several additions to the existing wilderness.

This proposal will provide another layer of protection for landowners and give added protection to those few areas of exceptional wilderness quality.

Personally, I and many thousands of Americans would like to see all of these federal lands as wilderness.

On the other end of the spectrum there are those who believe that there should be no wilderness at all, or at least, no more wilderness.

The meetings in Helena and Great Falls reflected a spirit of compromise.

The meetings in Choteau and Augusta were dominated by concerns of the people from the ranching and local government community.

I have respect for those folks who disagree, and it is my sincere hope that a majority of them will join in constructive dialogue with their fellow citizens who love this land.

This would be a wonderful to gift to our country and to future generations.