CHOTEAU — A listening session hosted by Rep. Steve Daines to gather public input on a bill that would preserve current conditions on some 275,000 acres of public land on the Rocky Mountain Front drew 200 people to Choteau on Wednesday afternoon.
Supporters of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act made a stronger showing at the meeting, but Daines found out the bill has both passionate supporters and detractors. Residents from Choteau, Augusta and other Front communities were joined at the meeting by Montanans from as far away as Missoula, Polson and Bozeman.
“We don’t have consensus right now, you can see from this meeting, on the Heritage Act,” Daines said after the hour-long meeting, that gave critics and proponents two minutes each for a face-to-face with Daines, a Republican and the state’s lone congressman.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., reintroduced the bill in February. Baucus is hoping to get a hearing in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Supporters are hoping for Daines’ support so the state’s congressional delegation is united. Sen. Jon Tester supports the legislation.
The bill would add 67,112 acres of new wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
It also proposes to designate 208,160 acres as Conservation Management Area. That designation is not as restrictive as wilderness but would keep protections currently in place in the Forest Service’s travel plan in place permanently.
Daines said he still hasn’t made up his mind on whether he’ll support the legislation.
“You saw today the diverse opinions,” Daines said. “There’s passion on both sides.”
More supporters of the bill showed up than detractors.
Of the 69 people who signed up to speak, 51 indicated on the sign-up sheet that they were for the Heritage Act, and 16 said they were against it. One person said they were undecided, and one said they were for it but with “modifications.”
Due to time constraints, 25 of the 69 people who signed up got the chance to speak at the meeting. Of the 25 speakers, 17 were in favor of the bill and eight were against it.
“The Front is the wildest land in the Lower 48 and will remain so with your help,” Greg Schotz, a member of the Back Country Horsemen, told Daines.
Randy Newberg of Bozeman gave Daines a petition he said was signed by 1,100 sportsmen who support the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act, which he called a good idea that reflects that values of Montanans.
“It shows the importance of this area and how people feel about it,” Newberg said of the petition.
Those who spoke against the bill said, in effect, that it was a bad idea that doesn’t reflect their values.
“I oppose it, and I’d really appreciate if you did too,” Lane Yeager of Choteau said.
Hunting and hiking is available now on the Front and it will be without new land management designations, he said.
Opponents testified that they were concerned about management changes restricting mechanical treatments of weeds and timber.
Grazing would continue in both the CMA and wilderness designations but Mark Salmond, a fifth-generation rancher from Choteau, told Daines he still is concerned that wilderness will bring increasing scrutiny. His family owns land that abuts land proposed for protections and leases public land from the Forest Service for grazing.
“Permittees may not be forced off these allotments but through rules and regulations they may become so burdensome and undesirable that the ranchers won’t be able to operate in a productive manner,” said Salmond, reading from a statement. “These allotments are what make some of these ranches viable operations.”
Daines said he was just there to listen and was keeping an open mind. He said would continue to collect information about the bill.
He currently is on a natural resources tour of the state and is headed back to Washington next week.
One consideration in his deliberations will be the condition of the state’s forests. Daines said he’s heard concern on the tour about forest fires and bug kill and communities being unable to harvest timber responsibly. Addressing that issue will be a top priority for him serving in the House Natural Resources Committee, he said.
“I can tell you straight up I don’t,” Daines told the audience at the close of the meeting, responding to one critic of the bill who claimed Daines has his mind made up to support the bill.
Prior to the meeting, Dusty Crary, one of the original supporters of the legislation, said the bill involves non-wilderness lands south of Birch Creek and north of Highway 287. He compared the bill to a conservation easement that preserves current conditions on the ground. He says a small but diverse group originally started working on the proposal when Lewis and Clark National Forest began remaking its travel plan for the area several years ago. He says the “conservation management area” designation, which is not “big W,” or wilderness, makes the proposal practical and politically attainable.
“We wanted to be proactive and try to come up with something that was customized to fit this landscape and the people and the uses that are here,” Crary said. “I think we’ve done that.”
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