Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would designate 6 new wilderness areas

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian | Sunday May 30, 2010

CHOTEAU – Roy Jacobs was waiting for breakfast at the Outpost Deli when 30 years of fighting for the Rocky Mountain Front quietly paid off.

Another customer leaned over Jacobs’ shoulder as he explained a plan for protecting the mountain range outside the café’s window. “I’m glad to hear of all the work you do for the Front,” he said. “Just wanted to say thanks.”

Jacobs is a taxidermist from Pendroy. Back in 1977, he teamed up with Choteau elementary school teacher Gene Sentz to form Friends of the Front. Their conversations with ranchers and hunters, county commissioners and national forest supervisors came together last summer in a proposal called the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

Sort of like Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, the legislation Jacobs and his friends seek would protect a huge swath of wild country while allowing people to keep making a living there. But the Rocky Mountain Front differs, geologically and politically, from the places Tester’s bill would affect.

“The hardest part was convincing all those groups that wilderness isn’t the only way to protect land,” Jacobs said. “We’ve had some real knock-down drag-outs. But there’s only a couple places on the globe like this.”

The draft act would affect a long strip of the Rocky Mountain Front between U.S. Highways 2 and 200, or from East Glacier to Lincoln. The mountains run almost straight north-south, and so does the boundary line between the Lewis and Clark National Forest and adjacent state and private land.

Its advocates claim the act would protect and perpetuate most of the activities Front users now enjoy. Its biggest effort – and the only part with a funding request) – would cover 434,237 acres along the Front under a new noxious weed management plan. This would ensure that federal, state, county and private land managers work together to resist knapweed and leafy spurge invasions.

About 86,000 acres would be designated as six new wilderness areas. All would connect to existing parts of the Bob Marshall or Scapegoat wildernesses, and only one touches the eastern boundary of the national forest.

Another 218,327 acres between those wilderness zones and the private land would become a Conservation Management Area. This area would remain mixed-use land where people could still use chain saws and vehicles for things such as collecting firewood, cutting posts and poles, and herding livestock. Hunters could still bring in bikes and game carts.

That division of land designations has drawn criticism from some environmental groups. Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said his membership opposes the proposal. AWR recently appealed a timber sale in the Benchmark area near Augusta on grounds it wouldn’t improve wildlife habitat or protect houses from wildfires, and won.

“My comment was they’re opening all this inventoried roadless land to logging,” Garrity said. “It opens up this huge area along the Front that’s currently being protected.”

Grazing was another topic that got lots of talk. Area ranchers have been allowed to run their cattle and sheep on Forest Service and BLM land for generations. Current law allows grazing to continue in designated wilderness areas, but many landowners balked at the idea of public grasslands becoming “big-W” wilderness.

“Some people would like to see a lot more wilderness in this,” said Dupuyer rancher Karl Rappold. “I’m in it to make sure all the local guys get a fair shake out of this. I don’t graze on public land, but a lot of my neighbors’ permits are over 100 years old. That’s why a lot of ranches didn’t want to see wilderness come to their land boundaries.”

And part of that meant making as little change as possible to the grazing rules. Whether an acre along the Front becomes wilderness or the more general Conservation Management Area, ranching practices would remain governed by the existing laws everyone’s comfortable with, Rappold said.

While some environmental groups argue livestock grazing hurts wildlife habitat, Rappold counters that good ranching benefits deer and elk as well. Keeping beef production economical keeps big ranches intact.

The same kind of pasture land farther east of the Front sells for $150 to $200 an acre, Rappold said. But property close to the mountains has been bid at $3,000 to $3,500 an acre, sought after by subdividers, hunting lodges and others who think they only need 10 or 20 acres of paradise.

Once a ranch is dismantled that way, two things happen. First, fences and roads multiply in places where big game used to freely wander. And second, weed control tends to flag, reducing the habitat value.

“I’m constantly getting offers to sell 10 acres for a cabin,” Rappold said. “Hunters see 200 or 300 head of elk on my ranch and they want to get at them. I don’t know of a time when the wildlife populations have been as strong as they’ve been this decade. They’re thriving. And if wildlife are on your land, you’re doing something right.”

To take effect, someone has to turn the Front act into law. All three members of Montana’s congressional delegation have received briefings on the proposals, but none has offered a commitment so far. Coalition member Bob Ekey of the Wilderness Society said there are three possible steps from here.

The first would be for either Rep. Denny Rehberg or Sens. Max Baucus or Jon Tester to introduce the act as a stand-alone piece of legislation. The second would be for Tester to add it as an amendment to his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which is now pending before the Senate.

Option No. 3 would be for one of the delegation to offer it in an omnibus lands bill similar to the one President Barack Obama signed in 2009. That one included 160 proposals from nine states.

“They’re looking right now to see if there’s enough bills to make an omnibus bill possible,” Ekey said. “The coalition felt pretty strongly we needed to be sure the bill had local support, had been vetted locally, had on-the-ground discussions. We’re just wrapping that part up now.”