Max Baucus' big conservation bill inched into new territory last week.
On Nov. 21, members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously voted in favor of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. Among other things, the act would add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and create a Conservation Management Area that balances recreation, hunting, fishing, motorized use and grazing on 208,000 acres along the Front.
The bill now faces a vote in the full Senate.
The recent success comes as welcome news to Baucus. When Montana's senior senator put the bill before the Senate in 2012, it never made it out of full committee. Now Baucus, who retires at the end of 2014, has little more than a year to move the legislation through Congress.
"There is nobody even close in Montana who has the power to sway votes like Baucus," says Greg Munther, chairman of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "It is hugely important that we make an effort this time around because I don't think we will have the momentum without his weight behind it."
If the bill passes the Senate, it will still need to make it through a hostile U.S. House of Representatives. Support from Rep. Steve Daines would boost its chances in the lower chamber, but Montana's sole representative remains noncommittal on the issue.
"At this point he is still considering his position," says Alee Lockman, a spokeswoman for Daines. "Beyond that we can't speculate about how it would fare in the House."
In a July interview with the Indy, Daines shed a little extra light on his thinking. "Realistically, what are the chances I would have in getting a bill to even have a committee hearing with these wilderness designations?" he asked.
Despite the congressman's stance, residents along the Rocky Mountain Front maintain hope that this "Montana-made" bill will someday become law.
"Virtually everyone I talk to wants to see the Front stay how it is and that is the unifying thread," says Bill Cunningham, a Choteau resident and former outfitter who has spent the last eight years working to develop legislation to protect the local landscape. "We have a far-sighted proposal and I think it is something that will eventually be adopted."