Get moving on Rocky Mountain Heritage Act

Great Falls Tribune Editorial Board

The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front believes a plan to put new protections for the Rocky Mountain Front, one they've spent five years crafting, is ready to be introduced to Congress. We agree.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would designate 67,000 acres of land in five areas: the headwaters of the West Fort of the Teton River, Our Lake and its basin, Deep Creek valley, Patrick Basin and Falls Creek valley as wilderness.

It also defines areas for noxious weed control.

This is critical to prevent plagues such as spotted knapweed and leafy spurge from taking over native foliage and endangering grazing for both wildlife and livestock.

The third part of the act includes areas with custom-tailored designations to allow existing uses, such as prescriptive logging near roads and in areas close to private property and motorized use on some trails, to continue.

More than 500 people attended four public meetings on the act earlier this month, including Sen. Max Baucus, who was at the one held in Great Falls.

We agree with Montana's senior senator, who said he is impressed with the effort that's gone into the proposed legislation, especially with the efforts to compromise.

With camps such as the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act pushing for wilderness designation for the entire Front on one end and others such as Rep. Kevin McCarty, R-Calif., who is proposing HR1581 that would strip existing protections from all roadless areas, which are what make up 90 percent of the Front now on the other end, the Heritage Act is indeed a commendable middle-ground.

The Heritage Act is actually a product of Rocky Mountain Front oil and gas and travel plan wars over the past 20 years, said Mike Aderhold, a former regional supervisor for the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and a coalition member.

"All that knockin' around during those debates, we formed relationships with people on the other side of the fence," he said.

That's fertile ground for a fair, common-sense compromise to take root and we think The Rocky Mountain Heritage Act is just that.

Baucus said he wants more information about the economic benefits of outdoor activities on the Front and imminent threats to it before making up his mind about whether to carry the bill in Congress.

Supporters are providing such answers.

For example, hunters alone spend $10 million annually while pursuing the activity on the Front.

That trend continued throughout the recession.

And as far as threats go, administrations change and land management policies shift.

The Heritage Act puts sidebars up and prevents eroding of what many consider a pretty good management plan, especially as far as access into roadless areas go.

There are 400,000 acres of public land under threat from noxious weeds on the Front now, and there is no plan to deal with them. The Heritage Act requires the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to come up with a comprehensive plan within one year.

Coalition members are working with Baucus and others through a separate appropriation request to secure funding to implement weed control measures.

It's time for the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act to be introduced to Congress, Sen. Baucus.