Rocky Mountain Front deserves our protection

Bozeman Daily Chronicle Editorial

Introducing a Montana wilderness bill in Congress would seem to be a fool's errand based on recent history. Montana's congressional delegation has been unable to agree on a measure that protects more of the state's remaining roadless areas as wilderness for going on 30 years.

But that isn't deterring Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who says he will introduce a bill to add some 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex and protect another 200,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front from further development.

This measure could avoid the dead-on-arrival fate that other wilderness protection proposals have met in the last three decades. It represents a compromise that preserves existing motorized recreation, agricultural and other uses in the area while limiting future road building.

As with any legislation that involves any of Montana's 5 million-plus acres of unprotected roadless areas, there will be vocal opposition. But this proposal represents a true compromise that should find some support from all sides of the issue.

The Rocky Mountain Front represents some of the best of what's left of unspoiled Montana. It is an extraordinarily scenic area that offers valuable habitat for many of the state's threatened and endangered species of wildlife.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, Baucus' fellow Democrat on the state's Congressional delegation, has introduced a wilderness bill that would protect areas of southwest Montana while mandating certain levels of timber harvest. Rep. Denny Rehberg, however, opposes that measure, and his position severely threatens the bill's prospects.

Rehberg has yet to take a position on the Baucus measure. But a compromise that preserves existing uses while limiting new road construction and designating only 67,000 acres of new federally designated wilderness in this extraordinary part of our state should be something that everyone can get behind.

The fight to protect the Front has been going on for years and has strong local support among those who live near the area. Let this be the bill that finally gets something done.