Supporters of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act had their day in Congress on Thursday when U.S. Sen. Max Baucus led off testimony on the bill.
“I think this is a no-brainer,” Baucus told Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee chairman Sen. Ron Wyden. “There’s no conflict. People worked very hard to make this happen. I hope we can get this passed this year.”
Choteau rancher Dusty Crary called the bill “our homeland security bill.” The act would add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and designate another 208,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land as conservation management areas that allow existing recreational uses such as chainsaws to clear trails.
The bill also earned qualified support from U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon. She said the agency wanted to consult with the subcommittee on the timeframe for imposing a new non-motorized recreation plan and noxious weed control efforts. Weldon previously led the Forest Service’s Region 1 headquarters in Missoula.
BLM deputy director Mike Pool supported the legislation.
Crary said the bill was five years in the making, and tried to balance the interests of all groups that work, play and visit the Rocky Mountain Front. He said some argued for larger wilderness designations, while others wanted more space for motorized recreation. The bill was a “start-from-scratch, kitchen table proposal,” he said.
One of those critics was Matthew Koehler of the Missoula-based Wild West Institute. He objected to language that made public land grazing permits more permanent, opening the way for greater herbicide use on noxious weeds and military overflights.
“The 67,000 acres of wilderness designations along the Rocky Mountain Front proposed by Sen. Baucus is a paltry sum, given the world-class, and largely unprotected wildlands and wildlife habitat currently found along the Rocky Mountain Front,” Koehler wrote in an email. “Even the Forest Service has recommended more wilderness protections in their forest plans for the area than what Sen. Baucus is proposing.”
Over the past decade, Baucus and former Sen. Conrad Burns worked to retire most of the oil and gas exploration leases on federal land along the Rocky Mountain Front. Baucus said while he encouraged petroleum development away from the mountain range, his current bill would not affect development on state and private land.
“I’ve been involved in wilderness bills that came the other way – top down – it doesn’t work,” Baucus told the subcommittee. “They haven’t tried to jam something down somebody’s throat. It would be a tragedy if we let them down.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.