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Recently, we witnessed something we haven’t seen in a very long time: Montana’s congressional delegation working together, finding common ground and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in support of a public lands package.

Up until this actually happened, I honestly didn’t think this kind of collaboration would occur anytime soon. But the members of our delegation proved me wrong, and I’m so very glad they did. That’s because the package includes something that Montanans can celebrate: The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

The Heritage Act permanently protects one of Montana’s most iconic and cherished landscapes. It keeps the Rocky Mountain Front as it is and provides the first new wilderness designation Montana has seen in more than 30 years — the perfect gift on this 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

What also makes the Heritage Act so special is that it represents the democratic, bipartisan, can-do spirit that has made Montana the great state it is. The bill was crafted on the Front by a group of local people of all political stripes who hold at least one thing in common: an abiding love for this special landscape. Ranchers, outfitters, hunters, anglers, hikers, business owners and others all had a hand in shaping the bill. Because it’s a bill by Montanans for Montanans, it enjoys nearly 70 percent approval in the state, according to a University of Montana poll conducted last June.

In permanently protecting the Rocky Mountain Front and adding 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Heritage Act safeguards some of the last best habitat in the Lower 48 for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, grizzlies, wolverines and a host of animals that depend on big country. When the Heritage Act passes, Congress would not only be protecting this landscape for generations to come, but also help ensure that my grandchildren will be able to enjoy the magnificent wildlife we have there today.

The Heritage Act recognizes that people don’t just recreate on the Front, they also make their living there. That’s why the bill maintains the grazing opportunities ranchers currently receive and allows chainsaws, game carts and all existing motorized use to continue on the 208,000 acre Conservation Management Area the bill creates. Moreover, it directs the Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service to prioritize noxious weed management on the Front — one of the greatest threats to both public and private lands in Montana.

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As part of the negotiations that recently went into the public lands package, two Wilderness Study Areas will be released if the bill passes. We, of course, wish these WSAs hadn't been included. But we accept that this was what it took to get the Heritage Act passed, a bill that permanently protects some of the most glorious country in the world. In terms of acres, while the lands package may weaken protection of 14,000 acres of public land in Montana, it strengthens protection of about 675,000 acres. And because these WSAs were released doesn't mean they’re lost. We’ll continue to work for their protection, as we've done all along for special lands across eastern Montana and for the WSAs that were released 31 years ago as part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act.

All in all, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is the right bill for this exceptional place. It’s a bill our delegation is standing behind, because it’s a bill that a legion of Montanans already stand behind. We thank our delegation for making its passage possible.

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Recently inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame, Gerry Jennings is a longtime council member and past president of the Montana Wilderness Association. She has worked for several years to protect the Front.

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