We all win with Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act

Great Falls Tribune Editorial Board

Call it a classic case of “politics as the art of the possible.”

It’s been 26 years since new wilderness was designated in Montana — the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in the Madison Range signed into law, in 1983, by President Ronald Reagan.

Five years after that, Congress passed a bill that would have given wilderness protection to an additional 1.4 million acres of federal land in the state, but in a summer of massive forest fires and with sponsoring Democratic Sen. John Melcher in a fight for his political life with Republican Conrad Burns, Reagan vetoed it.

In the intervening decades, conservationists’ and politicians’ strategies have evolved from the often-partisan development of forest management plans to a grassroots, kitchen-table approach that attempts to find consensus before legislation is even introduced.

It’s what the Blackfoot Challenge is accomplishing in that west-of-the-Divide drainage, and it’s what’s been happening in the Beaverhead and Deerlodge forests of southwest Montana.

And now the long-standing Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front is doing it in our part of Montana: the Front in the Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests.

The coalition has been working for several years to find solutions on the Front by talking to virtually all of the stakeholders and finding out what it would take to get their support for a plan that, finally, has one thing at its heart: keeping the Front the way it is.

The result is the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a locally produced solution that preserves the present uses and management of the almost 400,000 acres up and down this stunning landscape.

The measure embodies the “art of the possible” by drawing and redrawing lines and allowing uses that have been painstakingly worked out with the folks who use the area the most.

Further, it seeks to head off a threat that everyone can agree upon: the spread of noxious weeds.

Now the coalition is in the middle of a series of public meetings — sessions in Great Falls and Helena were last week; sessions in Choteau and Augusta will be Monday and Wednesday of the coming week.

Proving that the proposal is the result of compromise and collaboration, it drew criticism at the Great Falls session for being either too heavy-handed or too light-handed. Some critics wanted more roads; others wanted fewer.

What the measure does, in fact, is perpetuate the existing L&C Forest Travel Plan, as well as the existing temporary ban on further oil and gas leases, both of which are key to keeping this important area the way it is.

The plan includes a modest 86,000 acres of additions to the existing Scapegoat, Bob Marshall and Great Bear wilderness areas, and 307,000 acres of a new, less restrictive status the authors call “conservation management areas.”

CMAs will give land managers the flexibility they need to deal with such problems as fire near private land and the pine beetle infestation.

We commend the approach and the result of the coalition’s efforts.

We would have liked more wilderness in the proposal, but in light of practicing the art of the possible, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act will get the job done.

Along with the Missouri River, the Rocky Mountain Front is at the core of the “true Montana” to which Great Falls is gateway.

Its preservation is key to the future and the soul of Great Falls and the region