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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Dec 21 2014

It’s official: President signs first new Montana wilderness bill in 31 years

Tester and Walsh hold press conference to celebrate passage of Heritage Act

Dusty Crary stood in the middle of a cow pasture on his ranch west of Choteau, a silk handkerchief tucked into the collar of his down jacket to hold off the chilly winds blowing along the Rocky Mountain Front. He faced a clutch of reporters who huddled with about 30 other Montanans.

“This is the Front,” Dusty began, gesturing toward the mountains behind him, a 110-mile stretch of public land that biologists consider among the top 1% of wildlife habitat in the country. “That’s our inspiration in the background, and that’s something pretty amazing to wake up to every day,” he continued. 

“But ya know, the Front is also barbed wire fences and old post piles and irrigation ditches and horse manure…. It’s also people. In fact, probably the most important ingredient in the Rocky Mountain Front is people.” 

That was the central message of a press conference that Sen. Tester and Sen. Walsh held to celebrate passage of the Heritage Act, a bi-partisan bill that recently cleared the House and Senate with unanimous support from Montana’s congressional delegation, including Congressman Steve Daines.  

The Heritage Act permanently protects 275,000 acres of American public land along the Front from future development and degradation. The legislation includes 67,000 acres of land in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness areas and designates 208,000 acres as a Conservation Management Area, a provision that prevents the expansion of motorized use, prohibits new permanent road building, and protects traditional horse and foot trails.

Several members of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front spoke at the press conference. The Coalition began working on the legislation in 2007, although their work has resulted in many previous conservation gains along the Front over several decades, including the withdrawal of federal mineral leases on over 400,000 acres of the Front in 2006.

“You guys have been working on this forever,” Tester said when he took the microphone. “Since when?” he asked Gene Sentz, a retired Choteau school teacher and long time member of MWA.

“Since 1977,” Gene answered.

“Long enough!” Tester replied. “As long as Sharla and I have been married!”

In the nearly four decades that have passed since then, members of the Coalition have consistently focused their work within local communities along the Front, prioritizing the input of community members in Choteau, Augusta, Dupuyer, Great Falls, and Helena. Countless kitchen table conversations and at least ten public meetings resulted in countless adjustments to the original proposal from folks who make their living along the Front.

And according to Tester, that’s why the effort has been successful over the long haul. “This is where all collaborative efforts need to start,” Tester said. “On the ground.”

 

~ Gabriel Furshong is the State Program Director for the Montana Wilderness Association.  He writes from Missoula, MT.