Much to Support in Heritage Act

Gazette Editorial Opinion 

In Eastern Montana, some folks don’t take too kindly to the “W” word — wilderness. It conjures up images of government regulation, something many free-spirited westerners are generally wary of and oppose.

So when Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act last month, there were many hurrahs heard from the western third of the state and its plethora of environmental groups. The hurrahs seemed more muted in Eastern Montana.

After all, this part of the state is built on farming, ranching, coal mining and oil production. Sure, we like to hunt and fish in our spare time, but in general we see land as a thing to be worked and used for our profit, as well as to benefit our country.

So why would any of us want more wilderness, or to protect any lands from development? After all, much of this great state is so outstanding because Montanans, for the most part, take pride in managing their lands wisely.

Yet there are good reasons for supporting the many Montanans who helped craft the act.

For one, the majority of the land set aside in the act — 195,073 acres of Forest Service-managed land and 13,087 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management — is not locked up. No roads would be closed, grazing would be allowed, timber could still be harvested, ATVers and other motorized recreationists could continue to ride on designated routes.

In addition, the act directs the BLM and Forest Service to develop a plan to fight noxious weeds in the area.

The legislation also speaks to mountain bikers and hikers, offering to study improving nonmotorized recreation, and the act will add 50,401 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 16,711 to the Scapegoat Wilderness to address wishes of environmentalists, some of whom would like to see much more wilderness designated.

Like all good compromises, there’s a little bit for everybody in the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act, but not too much for any one group.

But there’s also one way in which we all win. If history has taught us anything in Montana, it’s the importance of water. It feeds our agriculture, as well as quenches our thirst. It provides recreation for our fisheries, as well as hydropower to light our homes. Some people think water will be the next oil — in short supply and worth a lot of money.

By taking care of places that store our snowpack — the mountainous regions like the Rocky Mountain Front that feed our streams and rivers — we’re taking care of ourselves, our neighbors and our grandchildren and their children. What could be better and more American, and more Montanan, than that?

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