UPDATE: Montana Wilderness Bill gets Senate Hearing

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – U.S. Sen. Max Baucus on Thursday presented to a Senate panel his plan for new wilderness and conservation area along the Rocky Mountain Front, with high hopes and the backing of the Obama administration.

Baucus told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests that the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act comes from residents who spent years working on it. The bill aims to keep development and road access at current levels.

Baucus predicted it will succeed where other wilderness efforts have failed because it is a homegrown effort.

“I have been involved in wilderness bills done the other way, top down. It just doesn’t work,” Baucus said.

Some opponents have said more wilderness designations could hinder access, mineral exploration and ranching operations. Baucus’ office noted that proposal would not affect ongoing oil and gas leasing in nearby Teton and Pondera counties.

The act would cover a scenic region where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains, stretching north of Lincoln toward Glacier National Park. It would add 67,000 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and designate more than 200,000 acres as a conservation management area that would limit road building.

The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service offered support for the measure.

“Huntable populations of elk, mule deer, big horn sheep, mountain goats and black bear all occur within the area being considered in the proposed legislation,” Mike Pool, BLM deputy director, told the committee. “In addition, threatened species including grizzly bear, Canada lynx, and bull trout are found on these BLM-managed lands.”

The U.S. Forest Service said the bill is consistent with the area’s current travel management plan.

Supporters said the aim is to essentially freeze use at current levels, while assuring grazing leases, motorized access and other activities can continue as they do now. It addresses issues in the region beyond wilderness in an effort to draw more support.

Choteau rancher Dusty Crary said residents want to preserve intact the area, and took great pains to make sure current uses were accounted for in the plan.

“If ever there was a start-from-scratch kitchen-table proposal, this is it,” Crary said. “We are a small group of ordinary citizens who are passionate about our landscape and have a thorough understanding of why it is important to keep it intact.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg has so far not taken a position on the measure, saying he wants to hear more from affected communities. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said he supports the bill.

Tester is separately proposing a measure that would expand wilderness in other areas, primarily in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge Forest while also mandating that the U.S. Forest Service log more acres each year. The bill has run into resistance from Democrats in Washington worried about the increased logging, and from Republicans opposed to the wilderness component.

Baucus supports Tester’s proposal. Rehberg, who is running against Tester for the Senate seat, is opposing that plan.

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