Montana is close to its first new wilderness designation in 30 years

Rocky Mountain Front in Montana.

Photo: Sam Beebe, flickr.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is moving, with an eye toward designating new wilderness area in Montana.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act could give Montana its first newly designated wilderness area in 30 years, as a public lands bill containing that and other protections was passed unanimously out of a Senate committee on Nov. 21.

The legislation, introduced by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) in early 2013 and now co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), would add 67,000 acres to the eastern fringe of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and the Scapegoat Wilderness Area, and set aside additional space for a Conservation Management Area buffeting it. The newly protected zones run along the Rocky Mountain Front, a wedge of land in Montana's Crown of the Continent region where the majestic limestone contours of the Rocky Mountains give way to lake-dotted plains.

Progress on the bill, which would permanently protect new Montana wilderness for the first time since the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area in 1983, has been marked by a spirit of bipartisan cooperation, following years of grassroots-led efforts on the ground that incorporated hunters and anglers, local businesses and conservation interests alike.

The Rocky Mountain Front area. Photo: Sam Beebe, flickr.

The region, a mix of prairie, forest, and tundra, is among the country’s most biologically diverse, hosting huge herds of bighorn sheep, migratory elk and mule deer. This has made it popular among sportsmen, and the new protections would preserve that status, joining alpine wilderness to the west with with prairie to the east, thus fortifying uninterrupted, year-round stretches of habitat for game animals.
This means that Sen. Baucus' bill would help solidify a sector that has been one of the area's economic strengths: a study released in 2012 by a Bozeman-based economic analysis firm found that communities along the Rocky Mountain Front have seen income and earnings higher than those in the rest of the state, buoyed by hunting, travel and recreation.
Nonetheless, the Rocky Mountain Front has great value as a natural marvel in its own right. It is among the only spots on earth where grizzlies still amble down from the mountains to stalk the grasslands, testament to its reputation as a truly intact wild place (one of very few remaining in the United States). In fact, it is often said that the area's sights are virtually unchanged since Lewis and Clark laid eyes on them in the early 19th century. Today, hikers and wildlife watchers have inherited those beautiful spectacles.

Approaching the Rocky Mountain Front. Photo: Jocelyn Catterson, flickr

In addition to wilderness area, the act's proposed Conservation Management Area territory would allow continued mountain biking, motorized recreation, grazing and other activities on over 208,000 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land. Another component would help fight noxious weeds, benefiting ranchers, sportsmen and private landowners.

If Congress passes the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, it will serve as a heartening reminder that public lands stewardship remains a core national value, eclipsing politics.