Many hunters back Front Heritage Act

Gust column by Mark Seacat

We Montanans are fortunate. We enjoy the good old days every autumn. We have tremendous opportunities to hunt abundant game. We aim to keep it that way.

That's why you see hunters of all stripes lining up in support of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is sponsoring this bill to continue the conservation legacy of an iconic piece of public land north of Rogers Pass and west of Augusta and Choteau. The legislation would maintain - not change - an area of unparalleled beauty, economic importance and, yes, fabulous hunting.

It's no easy task singling out Montana's premier hunting area. The Front certainly stands out as a leading contender. You'll find America's second-largest migratory elk herd, trophy mule deer, Montana's largest bighorn sheep population and abundant upland birds - among all the other wildlife that was here before settlement.

Hunters access the forest via roads and trails that take them to hundreds of thousands of acres of roadless public lands between the Bob and Scapegoat to the west and the ranchlands to the east. Those roadless tracts provide elk the security they need to thrive. Secure habitat keeps elk available on public land longer each fall, giving hunters a great opportunity for an amazing experience. No wonder the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks tallied some 90,000 hunter days along the Front last year.

You can't really put a price tag on such hunting opportunity. We can't ignore the economic contribution, either. FWP shows public land hunters contributed more than $10 million to local economies along the Front last year - a contribution that has grown even as other economic sectors have struggled in recent years.

Sportsmen and -women have a century-long record of commitment to protecting wildlife habitat along the Front. Hunters led in the creation of the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913 - an early and important act in the restoration of Montana's elk herds. They also funded the 1948 acquisition of the Sun River Game Range and, in the 1970s, creation of the Ear Mountain and Blackleaf WMAs.

The results of such measures have been good, but the Front still faces an uncertain future. Development pressures will only mount in the front country over time, and each election cycle carries the potential to whip the public-land management pendulum one way or the other.

The Heritage Act is the product of years of public conversations and collaboration among a diverse array of interests. The bill would do more than protect the area. It also would protect our way of life. Here's how:

• Cement existing management and use of some 208,000 acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands through the Conservation Management Area. The CMA would accommodate all existing uses and activities, such as hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. It also would maintain outfitting and livestock grazing. Motorized recreation would remain on the 155 miles of roads and trails currently open. Mountain biking on over 300 miles of trails and roads would be maintained. The CMA area would remain open for game carts. Habitat enhancement projects, fuels reduction projects, post-and-pole harvest and firewood gathering would all remain the same. Land managers could build new, temporary roads as needed within a quarter-mile of existing roads.

• The Heritage Act establishes control of invasive weeds as a priority throughout the Front and adjacent private lands. The goal is to foster coordination among agencies and direct greater resources to combat a threat to native vegetation. The goal is maintaining and improving forage for livestock and wildlife alike.

• The act adjusts the boundaries of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat to add some 67,000 of the wildest country to those wilderness areas. The change would effectively lock in current Forest Service policy of managing those lands as wilderness, while helping clear the backlog of areas waiting for protection.

America and Montana have plenty of examples of changes on the land that produce something other than progress. By contrast, we Montanans enjoy the good old days along the Front today, not by chance but through a century of commitment. The Heritage Act continues that commitment with a distinctly made-in-Montana approach to hanging on to what we've got.

Mark Seacat of Bozeman works in the Montana hunting industry and has been hunting Montana's public lands since he was 12.