The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act
An interesting example of what I wrote about a few days ago is currently afoot here in Montana, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act sponsored by our senior senator Max Baucus. The Front is a spectacular location, where the Bob Complex meets the prairie without mediation in a tangle of limestone reefs, broad valleys, and pine forests. You can see a bit of it here, here, and here.
You can read a summary of the bill, and most importantly look at a map of the various areas discussed, here.
The bill proposed, among other things, five big W additions to the Bob Wilderness complex. All are in the model of most Wilderness designations in the last decade or so; little islands of mostly forested, mid-elevation land on the edge of larger, existing Wilderni. The northermost three units sit just on the east side of the major hydrologic divide between the Teton River and N Fork Sun, and are heavily timbered drainages leading into rugged 7 and 8 thousand foot peaks. Perfect summer and early autumn elk habitat. The Patricks Basin unit is primarily lower elevation timber leading down to the border of the broad and gorgeous S Fork of the Sun, and I don’t know much about the southermost unit.
The other major provision of the bill is to create substantial conservation managment areas along the edge of the Bob Complex, area which is almost entirely national forest. This designation appears to be one expression of the much discussed “wilderness lite,” which would provide the more permanent preservation of Wilderness without the restrictions on wheeled and mechanized useage. Senator Baucus has been at pains to say that in this particular case the CMAs would do little other than making the status quo official and permanent. Most exciting for me are the little islands of BLM land outside the NF, which would preserve and promote contiguity with the several existing state game refuges. The NF boundary coincides very exactly with the border between forest and prairie in this area, going along with a national trend of preserving certain habitats largely to the exclusion of others. Given that native megavertebrates like elk and Griz historically relied on the prairie for a substantial part of their annual range, its encouraging to see some small steps being taken to provide wildlife with a more complete home range.
There’s a lot of local and regional support for this. There’s a decent amount of local objection as well, which seems to primarily consist of fear of what might come later and ideological objection to further federal regulation. Largely due to the lack of substantive change the bill would enact, it’s been difficult for the opposition to make an especially coherent arguement.
The only serious changes I see are to recreation, especially snowmachine use. The trails which run N-S through the Deep Creek area are ones I’ve eyed for bike use, and the change in designation would put a serious kink in any major bike route along the Front, as there is no alternative other than riding dirt roads way out into the prairie. I guess I better do that trip this summer.
At first, and second, glances it’s hard to pin down what the ideological basis of the bill is. That might well be its strength; its not based on much ideology at all, except perhaps the far reaching one of seeing the preservation of nature and the experience of big wild places as key to Montanas economic and spiritual future. Neither the bill nor the numbers directly used to support it say so explicitly, but inplicit in all the rhetoric has been the contention that the emptiness promulgated by the Bobs inaccesibility and the Fronts harsh climate is at the center of what makes the area so important. It is certainly what makes the fishing so good, the elk herds so large, and the trails so empty (at least in most places most of the year). This is a hard thing to argue with.
Overall, I think it’s a good bill. It punts on a number of sticky issues, chief among them water rights and irrigation. The network of dams and canals along the front, which make farming and ranching possible, is extensive. Gibson Reservoir, the largest on the front, is silting in at a rate comparable to Lake Mead, and will eventually cease to be useable. The amount of snow, and thus water, in the Bob will allow Montana to ignore water issues for some time to come, but will eventually need to be dealt with. This bill is a decent start. If you are so inclined, you may contact Baucus here.