During the past several months, while Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act has been grabbing most of the headlines and capturing a great deal of attention in Montana, another collaborative effort to preserve one of the state’s last best places, long in the making, was finally unveiled.

It is called the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, and it is being championed by a group called the Coalition to the Protect the Rocky Mountain Front. While it is similar to the three plans that make up the basis for Tester’s act in its collaborative approach, it differs from them in several key ways – and it is deserving of Montanans’ support in its own right.

Like the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, the Rocky Mountain Front proposal is the result of a collaborative effort involving public and private stakeholders, and the intense involvement of those who live, work and recreate on the Front. Like Tester’s bill, the proposed legislation would break new ground – and like Tester’s bill, it isn’t going to completely satisfy everybody. Some people will want more wilderness, and some people will argue for less.

The Rocky Mountain Front plan would lock in existing motorized uses and add protections to more than 300,000 acres of roadless areas, in addition to about 86,000 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness areas, without requiring any amount of “mechanical treatment” or logging. The Rocky Mountain Front, renowned for its sweeping vistas, is not especially sought-after for its timber values.

Instead, the plan calls for a comprehensive attack on noxious weeds, and would create a weed-management area within the span from Rogers Pass up to the Old Man of the Hills area. This effort, which would depend upon coordination among local and federal land managers, would be funded with $200,000 a year if Congress votes to approve it.

Members of the coalition are hoping to bring the Heritage Act before members of Congress soon, either as a stand-alone bill or as part of an omnibus land protection bill. To that end, they have been conducting a series of presentations in Montana, hoping to provide useful information and answer Montanans’ questions so that when the act is introduced in Congress, it will come with strong statewide support.

As Montana Crown of the Continent Initiative director Rick Graetz noted in his public presentation earlier this month, the Rocky Mountain Front region boasts a rich history as well as current values that ought to live long into the future. Now that nearly all the oil and gas exploration leases in the region have been bought out or retired, the Front should be kept exactly the way it is in order to preserve that future and allow our children a chance to learn from its rich history.

That’s why many supporters of the draft Heritage Act refer to it as the “keep it the way it is bill” – and why those of us who love the Front hope the draft bill will soon accomplish exactly that.

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