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History Made with Passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act

Heritage Act Gives Montana First New Wilderness in 31 Years

December 19, 2014 will forever live in the hearts of those who cherish the Rocky Mountain Front. It was on this date that President Barack Obama signed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act into law. Decades of local efforts to protect the Front culminated with the president’s signature, as did a campaign that Montana Wilderness Association had been conducting for more than 10 years. It was the first time in 31 years, since passage of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Act in 1983, that Montana gained new wilderness designation.

MWA has been active in Choteau, a small community along the Rocky Mountain Front, building the relationships and the grassroots support that set the stage for passage of the Heritage Act. MWA staffers and volunteer activists have worked with ranchers, hunters, anglers, outfitters, guides, local business owners, tribal members, public officials, and other conservationists in finding the common ground that made the creation and passage of the Heritage Act possible.

Located in northern Montana where the prairie washes into the Rockies, the Rocky Mountain Front is one of the most productive wildlife habitat areas in the Lower 48, providing exceptional habitat for grizzly bears, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, wolves, wolverines, lynx, and an incredible diversity of other species, both fauna and flora.

Starting with the Niitsitapi (Blackfeet), people along the Front have always known they live some place extraordinary. The Blackfeet consider the Front the “backbone of the world” and trekked to its peaks and ridges questing for visions. The Europeans who later settled here took part in establishing, in 1913, the Sun River Game Preserve, helping bring Montana’s elk herd back from the brink of extinction. In 1964, locals fought for passage of the Wilderness Act, as it established the Bob Marshall Wilderness in their backyard.

In the summer of 1977, a group of people living along the Rocky Mountain Front learned in an outfitters meeting that the U.S. Forest Service planned on issuing leases for oil and gas development up and down the Rocky Mountain Front. That was the day, one might argue, that the seed for the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was sown. People who lived and worked along the Front – including a school teacher, a rancher, a taxidermist, an outfitter, a lawyer, and a backcountry horseman – realized that their backyard, and one of Montana’s most cherished and iconic landscapes, was at grave risk. They decided to fight back against those leases, and they eventually won.

In 2006, many of these same locals persuaded the federal government to withdraw mineral leases on the Front.

In 2007, after years of input from the public, the Forest Service issued a travel plan for the Front that focused on traditional recreation and minimized motorized use. This conservation-minded plan helped galvanize the same group that fought the oil and gas leases back in the 1970s and inspired them to start work on a piece of legislation that would permanently protect the Rocky Mountain Front. Their passion brought fresh blood to the table, including a slew of Montana Wilderness Association volunteers and staffers.

After several years of poring over maps spread across kitchen tables, drawing and redrawing the lines on the map, the Heritage Act began to take shape. Several more years of public meetings resulted in more changes and a final product that a consensus of people on the Front and in the rest of Montana could agree to.

In recent years, MWA has worked closely with local advocates in hammering out the details of the Heritage Act and getting it from the Front to the halls of Congress.

On December 10, 2014, some 34 years after that first meeting to talk about fighting back against the oil and gas leases, many from that original group met in a hotel conference room in Choteau for a routine meeting of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, an organization that evolved from those early meetings in the late 1970s. At the beginning of the meeting, they learned that Montana’s entire congressional delegation was about to hold a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce that the Heritage Act was included in a public lands package being considered by Congress. The entire Front was poised for permanent protection.

Later, after the congressional delegation finished the press conference, Senator Jon Tester called the group meeting in Choteau.

“Today is a big day because we haven’t had a wilderness designation in 30 years, and we are on the cusp of that,” the Senator told the group. “This is due in good part to the kind of work you have done, to lay the foundation for us to go back here and move this forward. This would not have happened without your advocacy and the work you’ve done over many years to make this come to fruition.”

What the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act Does

  • Protects public access for hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts
  • Designates 208,000 acres as a Conservation Management Area, a home-grown category that would limit road-building while it protects current motorized recreation and public access for hunting, biking, timber thinning, and grazing
  • Prioritizes eradication and prevention of noxious weeds on the designated public lands. This, in turn, helps protect adjacent private lands
  • Designates 67,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front as additions to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex

Implementing the Heritage Act

Now that the Heritage Act is law, MWA is dedicated to making sure it is implemented smoothly. We continue to engage the local community, the congressional delegation, and the U.S. Forest Service to successfully and transparently make sure the bill is enacted.

Coalition partners will play an active role in the development of both the noxious weed plan and the non-motorized recreation study – two provisions of the Heritage Act that seek to improve opportunities and management of the natural and recreation resources on the Front.

During the summer of 2015, the Rocky Mountain district hosted two Montana Conservation Corps interns to assist the USFS with on-the-ground management activities such as hanging new signs, clearing trails, and conducting weed inventories. These positions were made possible with support from MWA, demonstrating our ongoing commitment to this landscape.