Meeting on Front protection draws crowd of 100

By EVE BYRON Independent Record 

Friday, October 2, 2009

About 100 people gathered at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena Thursday night to learn more about a plan to put a new layer of protection to 307,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front, plus add 86,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas.

Most of the crowd seemed to generally support what's being called the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which affects a 100-mile swath of public and private lands that is home not just to people but also to grizzly bears, gray wolves, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, antelope and dozens of smaller creatures.

The Act, which was put together mainly by people who live along the Front, has three main points: to focus efforts and federal money on noxious weed control; to add to the existing wilderness; and to institute a newly created designation of a "Conservation Management Area" along the Front.

The CMA designation was what caught most people's attention. It's meant to lessen opportunities for road building, logging and development on forest lands along the Front and act as a buffer zone between private lands and the federal wilderness area, by making permanent the current Lewis and Clark National Forest management and travel plans, according to members of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front.

Gloria Flora, a member of the coalition and former Lewis and Clark forest supervisor, said keeping those plans in place, instead of revising them every 10 or 15 years as required under current law, will allow the Front to remain as it now is, forever.

"The thing about the forest is that management can change, and depending on the supervisor's personal attitude and the staff and the budget, a lot of factors can affect how the forest is managed," she said. "When we recognized that what we have right now is what we want, we thought that this is a good way to go. So let's hold on to this travel plan in perpetuity."

That prompted one man in the crowd to question whether the CMA designation would usurp the Forest Service's ability to manage the forest as well as to adapt to unforeseen changes.

"Travel planning is hard and frustrating, but that's like any of our public policies, and it works," he said.

Flora responded by saying that while management needs some flexibility, that there haven't been many changes on the Front in decades, and those who live there want to maintain traditional hunting, ranching and recreating uses that are allowed now.

Tim Ravndal with the Montana Multiple Use Association, said he had numerous concerns with the proposal. He wondered why a broader array of interests weren't among the people who had been meeting for three years putting together the Heritage Act, including pro-motorized-use or mining groups. He also questioned the inclusion of county commissioners and other officials who took part in the discussions, or at least listened to presentations, without public notice.

Ravndal added that this project has many of the same problems he sees with Sen. Jon Tester's recently proposed Forests Jobs Bill, which would designate additional wilderness mainly on the Beaverhead/Deerlodge National Forest while mandating timber sales in other areas.

"We have constitutional rights to participate, Sunshine (Act) and open meetings laws," Ravndal said. "This is the kind of thing we face in decisions already being established before people get to be a part of the process. That's end game commenting."

But Geri Jennings said both travel and management plans for national forests have ample opportunities for commenting, and the CMA designation is just incorporating the Forest Service's decisions. The designation also wouldn't affect gas or oil drilling, since that was put off limit on public lands as part of a bipartisan effort in 2004.

Stoney Burk, a member of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, said they "requested, asked, begged and cajoled" for input from a wide range of people, and that hundreds of letters were written in response to the forest travel plan, prior to this new plan put forward two weeks ago.

"We spent years and years and years trying to come up with a compromise solution …" Burk said, noting that Ravndal left before the meeting wrapped up. "We are getting input now. I ask people to be fair, to stick around and listen because we will listen to you."

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 weren't included in Sen. Jon Tester's recent Healthy Forest Act bill, which includes additional wilderness designations.

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

Part of the proposal also transfers management, but not land, in the Outstanding National Areas from the federal Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Forest Service.

The group doesn't have a sponsor for the bill yet, but representatives from all three of Montana's congressional delegation were in the audience Thursday. After the two meetings next week in Choteau and Augusta, the comments will be compiled and the information will be presented to Sens. Tester and Max Baucus, and Rep. Denny Rehberg, with the hope they'll come up with a proposal to present to Congress.

"This conversation has been going on for a long time now, and we're at a critical time here," noted Gabe Furshong with the Montana Wilderness Association.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or