Baucus backs Heritage Act

Baucus backs Heritage Act

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Sen. Max Baucus announced Friday that he will introduce wilderness legislation this session to protect ranching and hunting opportunities along the Rocky Mountain Front for future generations.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would expand the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas by 67,000 acres and also create “conservation management areas” on an adjacent 208,000 acres along the Front. The conservation management area designation would keep current management activities in place — most of it Lewis and Clark National Forest, where much of the land is being managed as roadless — and prohibit future changes by new administrations. The act also prioritizes noxious weed eradication.

Standing in the center of Montana Outdoor Sports in Helena surrounded by about 50 supporters, Baucus noted on Friday that the Rocky Mountain Front is a “poetic, natural” paradise that reflects the true nature of Montanans as hunters, anglers, ranchers, hikers, mountain bikers, outfitters and anyone else who loves wild places. 

“I believe all of us have a moral obligation when we leave this place to leave it in as good of shape or better than we found it, not just economically or politically but also environmentally. It’s the right thing to do,” Baucus said. “I decided this is a very special part of the earth … and let’s figure out the right thing to do here.

“… Life is pretty uncertain in many respects, but this is something we can do here to make this part of our life more reliable and dependable.”

The template for the Heritage Act was laid out in 2007, when a diverse group of ranchers, outfitters, Rocky Mountain Front residents and environmental groups started meeting to talk about the future of the area. A provision had been passed by Congress in 2006 that removed the threat of gas and oil development along the Front, and the group wanted more permanent protection.

Many of the Front’s residents heralded Baucus’ proposed legislation, calling it a “home-grown, made in Montana” proposal that will protect the Front and keep it the way it is for generations to come.

“… Elk, deer and bighorn sheep herds along the Front are legendary,” said Joe Perry, a farmer and hunter from Brady. “This proposal helps maintain our hunting and fishing heritage on the Front, while protecting this unique and magnificent landscape.”

Dusty Crary, a longtime rancher on the Front, added that while the legislation doesn’t have universal support, it still offers a way to preserve a lifestyle and way of life.

“This is our homeland security,” Crary said. “If we get this done, we’re off the hook forever.”

Defenders of Wildlife also supported the act and urged Baucus to secure its passage through Congress.

“The Front is considered a continental-scale stronghold for several (focal) species — grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines — which make its natural values of global significance,” said Mike Leahy, Defenders’ Rocky Mountain region director. 

But others protested the legislation, saying their livelihoods would be negatively affected.

Jim Salmond said the wilderness designation would abut his ranch near Ear Mountain west of Choteau. He’s concerned that the family’s grazing leases wouldn’t be able to be passed onto future generations, and that the act was created without the input of people opposed to it.

“If it’s going to restrict me, I have to protect my family and I will subdivide my ranch so all people can enjoy it, since I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a rancher anymore,” Salmond said. “My grandkids are the sixth generation ranching there, and this will really affect us.”

Baucus said he’s heard that concern, and is willing to amend the act in order to ensure not just this generation of ranchers, but future generations also will be able to graze cattle where they have historically.

“I’m very sensitive to grazing … and do not want to be part of any legislation that’s detrimental to grazing rights,” said Baucus, who was raised on a ranch. “It’s important for us to find ways to protect that.”

Kerry White with Citizens for Balanced Use also voiced concerns, saying that multiple-use groups weren’t included in the discussions.

“This has been concieved behind closed doors, like usual, and is totally against the interests of the state of Montana,” White said. “I have talked to a lot of ranchers in the Cut Bank area who will be highly affected. There’s mineral rights, gas and oil leases, fencing and roads that will need fixing, and this will prohibit that forever.”

White added that he believes new wilderness designations will further keep less mobile people out of public lands, which is another reason he opposes the Heritage Act.

Baucus doesn’t agree with those assertions and is optimistic that the Heritage Act will pass, even though Congress hasn’t enacted a wilderness designation in Montana in 28 years, and a bill introduced by Sen. Jon Tester in 2009 that includes 660,160 of wilderness on three national forests hasn’t been approved yet.

“Past wilderness bills have been too ambitious; they’ve generally been statewide bills that take too big of a bite out of the apple,” Baucus said. “This is much smaller — only 67,000 acres of wilderness — with virtually little conflict and no one standing against it. Wilderness by other states has passed, and that’s because the differences were worked out in advance.

“This is a whole different approach, which I think will be successful.”

He added that he does support Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, but won’t attempt to attach the Heritage Act to appropriation bills, which Tester has done in an attempt to get the Forest Jobs bill passed.

“I respect Sen. Tester’s efforts and I hope they’re successful. That bill was added to the appropriations bill, but in this climate it’s difficult to add that,” Baucus said. “That’s not my approach. This will go straight through the committees and probably will be part of a larger public lands bill that will include other states.”

Jed Link, a spokesperson for Denny Rehberg, Montana’s lone seat in the House of Representatives, said the congressman hasn’t had the opportunity to fully examine Baucus’ bill so he’s not sure whether to support it or not. But he left the door open.

“Denny believes that while there are places in Montana that may be appropriate for new wilderness designation, those decisions ought to be built on consensus,” Link said. “That’s why Denny will continue to seek input from the affected communities in order to determine what impact this legislation may have on job creation and the economy.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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