MISSOULA — After a near-miss last year, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act has been reintroduced in the 113th Congress, on the 100th anniversary of the Sun River Game Preserve.
The bill, co-sponsored by Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, would protect wilderness, ranching and recreation opportunities in the mountain range between Augusta and Dupuyer, west of Great Falls. It would designate 208,000 acres as a conservation management area that allows motorized access, biking and other current uses, add another 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and support noxious weed prevention programs for agricultural and public lands across the Front. The bill would not affect mineral leasing in Teton and Pondera counties, or energy production on private and state land.
“Just like the Sun River Game Preserve 100 years ago, the Heritage Act was put together by local ranchers, sportsmen and small businesses coming together around the kitchen table to do what makes sense for their community,” Baucus said in an email. “This is their bill, I’m just the hired hand moving it through Congress, and I’ll continue getting feedback from Montanans and taking my orders from them to make this bill work even better for our state.”
Baucus cited Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department studies that reported 90,000 hunter-days on the Rocky Mountain Front in 2010. The hunters and sportsmen spent about $10 million a year between 2006 and 2010, according to the study.
Choteau rancher and Republican state legislator T.O. Larson led the effort to establish the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913. It passed the state Senate 26-0 and the state House of Representatives 62-2. Its now the home range of a major elk herd that helped restore the state’s game population.
Baucus and former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns encouraged private energy companies to relinquish oil and gas leases on almost all of the federal land along the Rocky Mountain Front, including a voluntary agreement Baucus secured in 2011 to protect almost 29,000 acres near Glacier National Park.
The latest version of the bill has provisions protecting grazing practices in conservation management areas and preserving the Benchmark small-plane landing field, Baucus said. The bill also requires the Lewis and Clark National Forest to study ways to improve bicycling opportunities along the Front.
The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act had a committee hearing in the Senate last year, but was not able to reach a floor vote.