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Montanans are ruggedly independent. We harvest our own meat, brew our own beer and spend days in the wild living by our own wits. But for all of our independence, we understand that if we’re going to achieve big things, we have to pull together and cooperate.

At the Montana Wilderness Association, we take that belief into our conservation work. We do it because it’s the neighborly thing to do and because it builds strong communities. We also do it because it’s the best way to conserve and protect the remaining wild public lands of the Treasure State so they remain sources of solitude, clean water and wildlife habitat for generations to come. That goal reflects the core values of the vast majority of Montanans.

Recently, our congressional delegation came together to help pass the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a made-in-Montana bill as grassroots and democratic as they come. Their unity also helped pass the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, and together these two bills permanently protect more than 650,000 acres of public land across the Crown of the Continent, one of the largest intact ecosystems in North America.

MWA played a unique role in crafting and passing the Heritage Act. Since setting up shop in Choteau in 2004, we’ve dedicated staff and volunteers to the job of listening to ranchers, hunters, anglers, outfitters, guides, local business owners, tribal members and public officials, and helping them find common ground around their shared love of the Front. The Heritage Act was built on that common ground.

The Heritage Act adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Just as importantly, it protects another 208,000 acres as a conservation management area. This tailor-made designation prohibits the building of any more roads, keeps motorized use at the minimal level it is today, and ensures that no commercial or industrial development ever occurs there.

All in all, the Heritage Act keeps this special corner of Montana the way it is, as one of the most productive wildlife habitats in North America.

Certainly, we would have preferred that the Heritage Act had not been part of a package of more than 70 bills, some of which we don’t like. We also would have preferred that two wilderness study areas in eastern Montana had not been released as part of the compromise.

But, from the 56 years of experience we’ve had fighting for Montana’s wild places, we know that new wilderness never comes without compromise. Compromise came with the grandfather of all wilderness bills, the Wilderness Act of 1964, and it came with the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act of 1983, the last time Congress designated new wilderness in Montana. Three WSAs in both eastern and western Montana were released as part of that law.

Just as we have worked on finding agreeable solutions for protecting WSAs released in 1983, we also will work on finding solutions for protecting the WSAs released alongside the Heritage Act. For as long as MWA has been around, we’ve invested hugely in protecting eastern Montana’s prairie wild lands. Our commitment to those lands hasn’t changed.

We asked Montana’s congressional delegation to do a job – get a bill through Congress, a bill made by Montanans for Montanans. That has always been a difficult task and is particularly onerous in today’s congressional culture of gridlock. So we thank U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, U.S. Sen. John Walsh, and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines for doing what so many politicians seem unable to do: put aside partisan divisions for the good of their state.

Montanans from all walks of life should stand proud that we, as a state and a nation, have done right by two very special places, the Rocky Mountain Front and the North Fork of the Flathead. The debate that has occurred over these bills and the rest of the lands package will soon fade, but the protection of the Rocky Mountain Front and the North Fork of the Flathead will live on for generations.

There are many other spectacular corners of Montana that deserve the same special attention. So let’s get to work, neighbor to neighbor, and get it done.

Brian Sybert is executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. 

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