Farmers, ranchers and conservationists packed into Choteau High School April 21 to weigh in on Sen. Max Baucus's proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. The debate over preservation of the Front was one they'd had before, repeatedly. But Rep. Denny Rehberg, the host of Saturday's listening session, couldn't help rekindling the conversation, because, an aide says, he's "heard some pretty major concerns" about the legislation.
Rehberg announced the meeting April 13, two weeks after Sen. Jon Tester co-signed Baucus's bill. In his release, Rehberg compared the Heritage Act to Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, claiming support for the latter had been "manufactured."
Rehberg is challenging Tester in Montana's 2012 U.S. Senate race.
The insinuation that support for the Heritage Act is dubious gave some on the Front pause. For more than five years, a hodgepodge of conservationists, ranchers, outfitters and businessmen have wrangled over how best to preserve the Front without limiting current uses. Those discussions culminated in Baucus's bill last fall. "We don't have a whole lot in common, goal-wise, with the Montana Wildlife Federation," says Dusty Crary, a Choteau rancher and member of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front. "But we all checked our guns at the door and said, 'We need to work toward the things we do agree on.' And we did."
Crary stresses that the Heritage Act came entirely from Front residents. "We're not a shell coalition," he says. Baucus calls the bill "a great example of a Montana-made proposal future generations will be proud of." Even so, Crary welcomed another public discussion. Rehberg's "doing the right thing" in offering more opportunity for discourse, he says.
Rehberg's staff said Saturday's meeting was no different than the other 100 public meetings he's hosted in the past four years: an attempt by the congressman to weigh public sentiment. "He had major concerns with Sen. Tester's wilderness bill because he held 22 public meetings to hear what regular folks thought," says Rehberg spokesman Jed Link. "Sen. Baucus's Rocky Mountain Front bill is no different."