Just the mention of wilderness designations in Montana over the past few decades has set hunters, ranchers and environmentalists at one another's throats. At times the subject has been so contentious that it seemed doubtful the U.S. could ever designate new wilderness areas. Former Democratic Sen. John Melcher tried to do it in 1988, only to be steamrollered by President Ronald Reagan's veto. Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which includes 100,000 acres of logging mandates and over 666,000 acres of wilderness designations, is languishing in the Senate—comatose for the last three years. But now the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is defying that trend.
Sportsmen, ranchers, business owners and conservationists with the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front have spent the past four years reaching an agreement on what needs to be done to preserve one of Montana's most celebrated stretches of wilderness. Their pitch is finally on its way to Congress, sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus. It adds 67,112 acres of wilderness in five parcels to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas. It preserves existing motorized, non-motorized, grazing and logging uses on 208,160 acres of federal land, designated the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area, and requires the federal government to draft a noxious weed management strategy for the Front within one year. Baucus calls it a "homegrown, made-in-Montana plan" crafted by interests that don't always see eye-to-eye.
"After attending public listening sessions and analyzing input from Montanans from diverse backgrounds, from hikers to bikers to ranchers, it's clear to me that this plan is balanced and will help us protect the treasures that bring people to Montana," Baucus said in an Oct. 28 press release.
Yet in the shadow of the Front range, oil and gas development looms. This October, seismic crews with Canadian company TESLA Exploration Inc. began surveying the prairie just a few miles east of the proposed Deep Creek Addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The crews, subcontracted for Calgary's Primary Petroleum and overseen by Choteau-based Montana Overthrust Management LLC, are using high-tech equipment to map portions of the Bakken shale formation in 3D.
Primary Petroleum holds 290,000 acres in Teton, Pondera and Glacier counties. On Oct. 20, the company announced it had joined with an as-yet unnamed, "major U.S.-based partner" to fund its $41 million explorations in western Montana. Those efforts should be complete by the end of 2012. The company already has identified a number of potential drilling sites west of Choteau, and near Baucus's proposed conservation management area.
Baucus has long trumpeted the Front's untamed character in Congress. In 2006, he established permanent protections from oil and gas development for the area. Earlier this year, he persuaded five energy companies to relinquish oil and gas leases on nearly 30,000 acres of Front land adjacent to Glacier National Park. "The Rocky Mountain Front is a sportsmen's paradise and considered worldwide as a crown jewel of the West," he said in the recent press release.
Defenders of Wildlife hailed Baucus's sponsorship of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. Regional Director Mike Leahy wrote to Baucus highlighting its importance for Rocky Mountain species such as Canadian lynx, wolverines, grizzly bears, elk and bighorn sheep, and the organization urged Baucus to usher it through Congress. But the bill has detractors, too.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Michael Garrity chastised Baucus's proposal for setting aside only a small portion of the land currently protected under federal roadless rules. And Paul Edwards, a rancher on the Sun River west of Augusta who used to write for Gunsmoke, called the bill "so bland that it's virtually meaningless."
Edwards, who is also a founding member of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, says the area is "priceless," while proponents of the RMFHA are "talking about [protecting] 67,000 measly acres...
"This is what the coalition calls advocacy for the Front? Please. This is bullshit."
The bill represents the defeatism of a weary environmental movement, Edwards says. "It was like you had to have consensus on everything. Well, when you have consensus on everything, you've got watered-down gruel. You've got mush. And that's what they got."
Edwards adds that he can understand the impulse to get whatever deal could be had, but the Front is one place where environmentalists should have made a last stand. The land has already weathered generations of grazing, motorized use and oil and gas interest nearby, he says. Now, every last acre deserves wilderness protections.