On the eastern edge of our renowned "Crown of the Continent" is the Rocky Mountain Front, where prairie sod and limestone collide. It is the gateway to some of our best national forest lands and the spectacular Bob Marshall Wilderness. The Front's fabled wildlife populations are the benchmark of comparison, sought after not only by those in search of the finest fair chase opportunities, but increasingly by those who will travel great distances for nothing more than a hopeful glimpse. It's also the home of dozens of working ranches that have been the livelihood of many families, like my own, for several generations.

Conservation ecologists will tell you the Front sits within one of the most intact and important natural systems on the planet. Stable and productive ranches have helped to keep the front from being consumed by development for recreation and new homes like much of the West. More than 130,000 acres of land has been protected thanks to the local ranching community, conservation groups, and a little-known federal program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has supported many of the Front's voluntary conservation easements.

The Obama administration just launched a new initiative called America's Great Outdoors, that in part seeks to preserve America's ranchlands and culture. If we want to save our nation's rich ranching tradition for future generations, we need to insure that ranches stay ranches. We need Congress to pass legislation for permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

For decades, ranching families have been quiet caretakers of the ground and all it supports. The strip of mostly private land between Highway 89 to the east and the federal lands to the west is still very much intact with very little conversion. These lands are stitched together with numerous streams as they braid themselves together on their way to the Missouri. These riparian corridors sustain a rich and diverse treasury of native plants and animals, and are a critical habitat component of the whole Crown.

More and more of this land is being protected in perpetuity with conservation easements. Strong family ties to the land, an original conservation ethic, and a realistic understanding that sometimes change is not always for the better, have motivated many families to place an easement on their property. There is demand for more, and ranching families continue to work with state or federal agencies and groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund. Easements do more than just protect the integrity of a piece of land. Revenue from easements has been leveraged into additional property to expand operations, and is a real stimulus package for local economies.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund can help meet that demand. This fund, created in 1965, uses revenues from outer continental shelf oil and gas production to protect America's most important natural places, including working lands. Originally authorized at $900 million annually, these funds are for conservation projects to balance the use of one natural resource - offshore oil and gas - by protecting land and water elsewhere. Over the last decade, Congress has only appropriated an average of $313 million annually, while offshore energy leasing revenues have averaged

$6.4 billion annually.

It's time to implement full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund as Congress intended. Senate Bill 2747 would dedicate permanent funding of

$900 million a year to preserve our natural heritage and special places like the Rocky Mountain Front. I commend our own Sen. Max Baucus for introducing this legislation and thank Sen. Jon Tester for co-sponsoring the measure.

Many Americans have lost touch with the great outdoors, and many agricultural regions are experiencing an exodus of their young people. The Front is not that way. My kids are the fifth generation on this ranch. I think their great-great-granddad would be pleased with us for placing an easement on this place he put together. I want others, who chose to do so, to have that opportunity as well. It doesn't matter how long I'll be here, because this ranch and many others on the Rocky Mountain Front will remain intact and productive forever.

Dusty Crary, along with his family, ranches and conducts a backcountry outfitting business out of Choteau.

 

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