Heritage Act deserves center stage: Legislation to protect Rocky Mountain Front needs leader to carry it through political process

Missoulian editorial |  Thursday, June 3, 2010

Let's take a page from the Blackfoot Challenge, and start with the 80/20 rule.

That, as explained by Ovando rancher David Mannix at a high-profile conservation-minded meeting this week, means first talking about the issues on which we can all agree, which typically covers about 80 percent of the discussion, before tackling the more contentious issues - that last 20 percent.

So here is what we can all agree on, the big stuff: That the Rocky Mountain Front is a unique place, both within Montana and to the wider world; that it is one of the last largest swaths of untouched land in the state; that it has been and is currently under threat; and that it warrants protection.

Fortunately for all of us, the remaining kinks of disagreement over how best to go about protecting the Front have been ironed out - thanks to the ongoing collaboration of local private landowners, public land managers, conservationists and many others for many years. Draft legislation backed by a group called the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, has been readied and offered to the people of Montana for review in a series of statewide public meetings.

It now awaits only a champion in Congress. And the sooner one steps forward, the better.

Once the Heritage Act is approved, all current uses and protections on the Front will be locked into place. About 86,000 acres of wilderness will be added to the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness areas, and protections will be added to more than 300,000 acres of roadless areas. The proposal also provides $200,000 a year to establish and oversee a specially designated weed-management area.

See? The hard part has already been resolved. The coalition has brought a diverse group of stakeholders to the table to adjust a weed-management boundary here and tweak an acre of wilderness there - and then brought them back to the table again and again, until all parties were satisfied.

In fact, in many ways the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is a less controversial proposal than some of the other plans offered to Montanans in recent months - among them U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which is primarily based on the results of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project and the Yaak Valley's Three Rivers Challenge.

Now, the only real danger facing the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is that, competing for attention with the crowd of more heavily disputed land management efforts, it might get put on the back burner.

There is no reason to wait, and every reason to get this legislation into place now.

Contact our U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, and tell them so.