After a near-miss last year, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act has been reintroduced in the 113th Congress, on the 100th anniversary of the Sun River Game Preserve.

The bill, co-sponsored by Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, would protect wilderness, ranching and recreation opportunities in the mountain range between Augusta and Dupuyer, west of Great Falls. It would designate 208,000 acres as a conservation management area that allows motorized access, biking and other current uses, add another 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and support noxious weed prevention programs for agricultural and public lands across the Front. The bill would not affect mineral leasing in Teton and Pondera counties, or energy production on private and state land.

“Just like the Sun River Game Preserve 100 years ago, the Heritage Act was put together by local ranchers, sportsmen and small businesses coming together around the kitchen table to do what makes sense for their community,” Baucus said in an email. “This is their bill, I’m just the hired hand moving it through Congress, and I’ll continue getting feedback from Montanans and taking my orders from them to make this bill work even better for our state.”

Baucus cited Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department studies that reported 90,000 hunter-days on the Rocky Mountain Front in 2010. The hunters and sportsmen spent about $10 million a year between 2006 and 2010, according to the study.

Choteau rancher and Republican state legislator T.O. Larson led the effort to establish the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913. It passed the state Senate 26-0 and the state House of Representatives 62-2. Its now the home range of a major elk herd that helped restore the state’s game population.

Baucus and former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns encouraged private energy companies to relinquish oil and gas leases on almost all of the federal land along the Rocky Mountain Front, including a voluntary agreement Baucus secured in 2011 to protect almost 29,000 acres near Glacier National Park.

The latest version of the bill has provisions protecting grazing practices in conservation management areas and preserving the Benchmark small-plane landing field, Baucus said. The bill also requires the Lewis and Clark National Forest to study ways to improve bicycling opportunities along the Front.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act had a committee hearing in the Senate last year, but was not able to reach a floor vote.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

(3) comments

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler

While the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would protect some small portions of the world-class Rocky Mountain Front in Montana as Wilderness, as currently written the RMFHA protects only a paltry sum as Wilderness while leaving too much of the federal public lands along the Rocky Mountain Front open to private grazing, motorized use and other uses that compromise the ecological integrity of this American Serengeti, where grizzly bears, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep and deer roam as they have for centuries.

Specifically, I urge Senators Baucus, Tester and the US Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee to make the following changes and improvements to the RMFHA:

• The 67, 000 acres of Wilderness designations along the Rocky Mountain Front proposed by Senator Baucus is a paltry sum, given the world-class, and largely unprotected wildlands and wildlife habitat, currently found along the Rocky Mountain Front. Even the Forest Service has recommended more Wilderness protections in their forest plans for the area than what Senator Baucus is proposing. Unfortunately, two years ago supporters of Baucus’ bill dropped almost 30,000 acres of proposed Wilderness from this bill at the request of snowmobilers and those who oppose Wilderness. I strongly urge Senator Baucus and the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee to include Wilderness protections for all the inventoried roadless wildlands along the Rocky Mountain Front.

• The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act preserves existing motorized, grazing and logging uses on 208,160 acres of federal land, designated as the “Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area." A serious question that should be posed to Senator Baucus is: How does preserving existing motorized use, grazing and logging on 208,160 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front actually result in eliminating the threats posed by motorized use, grazing and logging in these areas?

• Re: Grazing – This bill locks-in public lands grazing across the Front by stating that “The secretary shall permit grazing” where it currently exists. Under existing law, grazing may be allowed to continue, but it is not mandated that it must be allowed to continue. The current language of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act ties the hands of the Forest Service and it is worse than a bail-out, as it mandates the federal government to keep a private, commercial enterprise operating on public land, regardless of the ecological consequences, both now and into perpetuity. This public lands grazing mandate MUST be removed from the RMFHA.

• This bill has special provisions for Wilderness management that should raise red flags to those who support Wilderness. This bill currently contains language for overflights, as it relates to commercial and general aviation, that is unprecedented in the history of the Wilderness Act and needs to go. The military overflights language, while bad, is pretty standard fare nowadays. But this language seems to preclude efforts to control or limit flightseeing or other overflights, which are incredibly disruptive to visitors, wildlife and Wilderness. Please REMOVE this language from the RMFHA.

• The language for maintaining existing facilities for livestock grazing is more liberal than previous Wilderness bills. The language incorporating State or local agencies for controlling fire, insects and disease promotes the trend toward devolution of federal public lands and is objectionable on that basis. Please REMOVE this language from the RMFHA.

• Much of the noxious weed stuff in the bill is all about taxpayer funding for dropping tons of poisons on the ground (while also mandating that all existing livestock grazing continue forever). If this were an effective strategy there wouldn’t be weeds in Montana. Given the complexities and unknowns of controlling weeds, especially with a rapidly changing climate and an escalating number of encroaching weed species, the called-for management strategy needs to focus on an assessment of existing weed infestations, the causes, potential controls, costs, likelihood of success, and clearly stated, measurable objectives to determine whether the controls are effective, and what will be done if they aren’t or if the funding doesn’t come through. At a minimum, this section of the bill should call for the plan to be written by an independent team of scientists.

Many substantive concerns regarding the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act have been expressed by a number of organizations and many experienced, dedicated wilderness and forest protection activists. Many Montana wilderness supporters remain disappointed that the Act would only designate a small fraction of Wilderness-deserving lands on the Rocky Mountain Front as Wilderness, while leaving too much of the Front open to logging and other forms of development.

We’ve tried to get the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front to listen to our concerns and add more protections to the unparalleled wildlife habitat and wildlands on the Rocky Mountain Front, but, unfortunately, they seem more concerned with politics and the appeasing the opinions of the anti-wilderness crowd.

As with any piece of legislation, we’d encourage people to read the actual language of the bill. In order to fully understanding the bill language, and what it would mean for future management of public lands, it also helps to have a solid working understanding of bedrock environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act and certainly an understanding of the Wilderness Act. We’d put forth that perhaps there is more to the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act than simply taking the talking points of supporters at face value. The Rocky Mountain Front means a lot of things to lots of people and we will likely only get one chance to protect this world-class area.

Wilderness supporters should take action and let Montana's Congressional Delegation and the Senate's ENR Committee know about substantive concerns with the current bill language and how to make the bill better for Wilderness, for wildlife and for future generations.


Perhaps Senator Baucus could answer a few questions. Who stands to gain the most - between Ear Mountain and the Sun River Canyon by his Heritage Act? Is it the two (2) major out-of-state landowners whose ranch holdings are immediately east and adjacent to these current BLM Outstanding Natural Areas - areas designated by the Baucus Heritage Act? And, while I'm asking why is it the State of Montana seeks to dismiss itself from the private Montana citizen 3rd Party Complaint filed in Teton County District Court asserting the State "breached its fiduciary duty to public" by failing to protect a valid public access that ... YES, would lead to State public land that connects to this BLM land. Wake-up Montana before ALL of your public lands become inaccessible. The State isn't going to do you any favors nor is it going to protect your interest. It's all about big-money politics! And, why don't you ask your State Legislator to request a copy of the DNRC Dec. 2006 Tommy Butler Memorandum on this important public access, its all laid out there. OR, perhaps, you could ask Senator Baucus for a copy but I rather doubt he even knows about it!


Great letter--I find it very interesting that only 4 ranchers support this and 28 are on record of opposing it. This is just another massive land grab by the government and out side environmental groups. It is funny how they say this is a collaborative effort when in fact, this is just a few bullies that think the government is the best land steward in existence.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.