Group Unveils Rocky Mountain Front Proposal

EVE BYRON Independent Record

A plan that proposes to add a new layer of protection to 307,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front, while adding 86,000 acres in six chunks to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, was unveiled Wednesday.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is an agreement hammered out during the past three years mainly by people who live along the Front, according to members of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front.

The plan, which will be presented to the public at four meetings beginning Sept. 30, uses a newly created "Conservation Management Area" designation that seeks to provide less opportunity for road building, logging and development on forest lands along the Front and acts as a buffer zone between private lands and the federal wilderness area.

It also includes provisions for additional money - at this time, about $200,000 per year - to fight the spread of noxious weeds along the Front.

Supporters say they hope the plan will keep the Front the way it is now, with some motorized and nonmotorized use on national forest land, but ensuring no development, like gas or mineral exploration, over time on the landscape.

"The Front is sandwiched between private land and protected public land, but the Front itself has absolutely no protection other than every 10 or 15 years (the U.S. Forest Service) comes up with a new travel plan," said Roy Jacobs, a taxidermist in Pendroy.

"So we looked at this from the landscape level … and everybody gets a little of what they want," he added. "We believe it's a very balanced level of protection."

Karl Rappold, whose 127-year-old family ranch crosses Pondera and Teton counties, adds that they don't want to put the Front under a glass bubble or make it into a national park. Instead, they want to preserve existing uses like grazing or outfitting while protecting species that roam through the area.

The Front is home to grizzly bears, gray wolves, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, antelope and dozens of smaller creatures.

"We want to keep the Rocky Mountain Front as it is and keep it as a working landscape," Rappold said. "If you want to see what does happen without some kind of protection, just go to Colorado and see what happened to what was an area like the Front north of Denver. Now you see a diversity of homes, not of wildlife."

Not everyone agrees that the plan provides more protection. Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which has proposed a wilderness designation for a larger area along the Front, said this proposal actually would allow for more logging and road building, which would lead to the increased spread of noxious weeds.

"It would be managed as wilderness under our bill, and is essentially being managed as wilderness now," Garrity said. "It's reducing protection because it's opening up roadless areas to road building and logging."

Gloria Flora, a Helena resident who is the former Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor, countered that any project would still need the approval of the current forest supervisor, and go through standard environmental analyses.

Those involved in putting together the proposal said they knew it would make some people unhappy, and Jacobs noted that he even became so frustrated at one point that he tried to drop out of the group.

But he didn't because of the importance of the area, he added, and he thinks the final proposal shouldn't offend anyone or any group, since they're not trying to change anything.

"What we tried to do is look at the landscape and not get tied up in your pet project or mine," Jacobs said. "… I totally believe we addressed that. It's one of the grandest landscapes left in the world."

The proposed wilderness additions are in the West Fork of the Tetons near Teton Pass; in the Mills Falls area; west of the Chute Mountain Outstanding Natural Area; south of Gibson Reservoir; south of Steamboat Mountain; and a small chunk along the northern edge of the Helena National Forest.

These areas were not included in Sen. Jon Tester's recent Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which includes additional wilderness designations.

The Conservation Management Area generally runs from the Old Man of the Hills area south to Rogers Pass.

Part of the proposal also transfers jurisdiction of the Outstanding National Areas from the federal Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Forest Service.

The group doesn't yet have a sponsor for the bill, but said they've gotten positive reactions from Montana's congressional delegation as well as from local forest service supervisors for the manner in which the plan was created.

Flora said they want to present the plan to the public before taking the next step, since the proposal may change based on public comments.

"We want to let the process play out," she said. "We're anxious now to reveal what we think is an excellent piece of work.

"We don't think we have 100 percent of the population standing up doing cheers, but at the same time we have worked thoughtfully and comprehensively … so this would benefit the entire community. There's something here for everybody."