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Hoping to do for the Absaroka-Beartooth Front what has been done along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition has proposed greater protections for the region in northwestern Wyoming.

It took years of cooperative work, but public lands along the Rocky Mountain Front, west of Great Falls, have been withdrawn from mineral leasing.

Now is the time to consider such a move for Wyoming, said Hilary Eisen, with the GYC's Cody office, because Bureau of Land Management offices in the region are working on their Resource Management Plans and the Shoshone National Forest will begin work on a new forest plan in 2011.

“There's the potential for a win-win situation,” said Jeff Welsch, GYC communications director. “There are areas where development could occur without impacting wildlife. There's very little overlap between areas of energy development and conservation.”

Few other groups had heard of the coalition's proposal or developed a position on the suggestion.

“The (Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership) is currently evaluating this resource area and has not yet taken a position on the Absarokee-Beartooth Front,” Katie McKalip, associate director of communications for the group, wrote in an e-mail. “The TRCP does, however, support the conservation of high-value backcountry areas and the responsible development other public lands.”

The Absaroka-Beartooth Front is composed of two mountain ranges. The Beartooths extend northwest from near Clark, Wyo., to the Boulder River southwest of Big Timber. The Absaroka Range starts near Livingston and runs southward through Yellowstone ending northeast of Dubois, Wyo.

Together the mountain ranges provide a lofty, rugged and undeveloped eastern buffer to Yellowstone National Park. Because so much of the terrain is managed by state and federal agencies, the front range has maintained much of its wild character and is still home to a variety of animals — everything from grizzly bears and elk to prized native cutthroat trout and endangered sage grouse.

“It's predicted to be the most resilient area for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” in terms of climate change, Eisen said. “It has the potential in the future to serve as an ark for the GYE.”

To protect the area, the coalition would like to see the entire Shoshone National Forest withdrawn from future mineral leasing. More than 50 percent of the 2.4-million acre forest is already wilderness, where such development is excluded.

“We don't have a lot that has potential for development,” said Susie Douglas, public affairs specialist for the forest.

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But portions are still in the developers' sights. There are proposals to drill on the forest near Clark and Dubois, Wyo.

The Clark-area project is being proposed by Windsor Energy, the company that had a gas well blowout in 2006 that contaminated groundwater.

“We're really taking a hard look at it because of the controversy with the well down the road,” Douglas said.

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The Dubois-area project had been initiated in 1999 and never developed, only to be revived, Douglas said. An analysis of that project is due in March.

Shoshone National Forest officials also hope to finish their forest planning in two years, basing it on the same rule from 1982 that the current plan was written under. Two previous plans have withered on the vine under repeated rule changes.

“I wouldn't say it's easier, but it's the same old process,” Douglas said. “We really want to get this finished.”

Eisen said the planning documents provide the perfect opportunity for the public to express its opinions about how the Absaroka-Beartooth Front should be protected or developed.

“We'd like to try to get these agencies to protect key wildlife migration routes and hunting and fishing areas and set those off-limits to energy development or, depending on the area, development with restrictions.

“There's not a reason to have a lot of fighting and polarization over the Absaroka-Beartooth plan,” she said.

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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