Projects and Issues

Trio of Land Conservation Proposals

In 2009, landmark legislation that protects millions of acres of critical wildlife habitat, ensures future generations access to those lands, and that will help keep the hunting and fishing heritage alive throughout the United States was passed by Congress. To the south of us, the wildlife rich parts of the Wyoming Range in Southwest Wyoming, home to three species of cutthroat trout and the summer and transitional ranges for one of the largest mule deer herds in the nation was put off limits to oil and gas development. Other collaborative national-state efforts have been rewarded with approval throughout the west, but curiously, none recently in Montana.

 That could all change with some conservation leadership by Montana’s congressional delegation. Currently, there are three packages that could provide Montanans with long-term, landscape conservation measures worthy of our treasured landscapes, priceless wildlife resources and our hunting, fishing and outdoor heritage. The proposals are: The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2010, and The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

North Fork courtesy of NPCA

The North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2010

The North Fork of the Flathead valley is a special place that truly fits the slogan “Montana: High, Wide and Handsome.” Flanked by Glacier National Park to the east, the Whitefish Range to the west and graced by the pristine, aqua-blue, sinuous North Fork of the Flathead River, this valley has it all. Anglers can cast flies to native trout, hunters have ample room to roam on national forest and state lands, campers can spike out high on alpine peaks or car-camp along the river. The region abounds with wildlife including moose, elk, deer, grizzly bear, wolverine, osprey, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. Put simply, in a state with so many special places, the North Fork of the Flathead is at the top of the list.

 Twenty-eight years ago, Montana Wildlife Federation recognized that oil and gas drilling was not a land use compatible with the incredible fish, wildlife and hunting and angling legacy of the North Fork, and we went to the trenches to prevent the area from turning into an industrialized zone. After having an oil and gas leasing protest denied by the Forest Service, MWF joined with other groups in litigation and won on the grounds that the Forest Service did not meet their obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act.

 The oil and gas leases in the North Fork and many others on the Flathead and Gallatin National Forests were suspended to prevent resource damage until the Forest Service met their obligations under federal law. Today, those leases are still suspended and MWF is hopeful that the North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2010 will provide the long term protection the area deserves.

 However, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act will only prevent future leasing and we still need to deal with those leases ruled to be illegal 28 years ago on the Flathead National Forest, including numerous leases along the North Fork River. These leases that were long ago suspended are located in the Jewel Basin, along Hungry Horse Reservoir, at the toe of the Mission Mountains near Big Fork, near Tally Lake, the Seeley Swan Valley and of course along the North Fork River.

Forest Jobs and Recreation ActScenery courtesy of Tracey Johnson

For years, conservation and timber interests have battled over the use of Montana natural resources and habitat protection. Decades of bad blood, lack of trust and outright hostility has boiled over in to courtrooms, the legislature, and county commission meetings.  

 The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, introduced in July of 2009 by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, is a new solution for public lands management. The Act, which is currently working its way through Congress and could get a full hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in late June, combines lands protection, jobs and timbering in one package.

 The Act is a ‘made-in-Montana’ forest stewardship bill. It promotes forestry designed to restore forests and protect communities from wildfire, dedicates areas for motorized recreation and at the same time protects pristine backcountry. The bill is backed by a broad coalition of Montana business owners, loggers, sportsmen, and conservationists.

 The bill is the result of hard work from Montanans of all walks of life. Sen. Tester united three community-driven efforts to better manage Montana national forests. These areas include the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, the Lolo (Seeley Lake Ranger District) and the Kootenai National Forest (Three Rivers Ranger District.) Each of these community efforts will reduce local fire danger and create jobs for communities such as Drummond, Seeley Lake, and Troy, while protecting access and special places.

 The bill makes use of stewardship contracts, which have a record of success in Montana. Stewardship contracts foster greater participation between local communities and the Forest Service. Proceeds from any sale of logs or fiber are reinvested in the local forest. Projects might include protecting communities from wildfires or replacing culverts to protect Montana’s clean water or upgrading campgrounds, trailheads and trails.

 Fishing, hunting, horse back riding, and hiking are important traditions for Montana families, and the Forest Jobs Heritage Act will protect access to public lands.  In addition, the Act adds some of Montana’s most pristine backcountry to the National Wilderness Preservation System, protecting traditional access to prime big game habitat and fishing waters.

RMF Panarama Courtesy of Jeff Van Tine

Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act

World class elk, monster mulies’, bighorn sheep, black and grizzly bear, mountain lion, wolves, wolverine, eagles, falcons, and hawks, fisher and every other species (with the notable exception of wild bison) that were present when Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery explored Montana, still wander wild and fly free along the Rocky Mountain Front. For more than nine years, MWF has eagerly worked with Front outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, anglers, ranchers, business owners, outfitters and active partners in the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front to craft a conservation package. After three long years of collecting input from stakeholders and putting approaches on paper, the Coalition has developed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act that is being shared broadly with the public.

The proposal has three core elements:

A. Establish a new, tailor made designation to protect wildlife migration corridors and traditional uses such as hunting, fishing and agriculture called the Conservation Management Area. At over 218,000 acres, this new CMA would establish a baseline for future management decisions that respect the time honored uses of the Front be they livestock grazing, hunting, or just simply hiking around the reefs and mountains that make up this incredible landscape. Interestingly, not one mile of motorized use would be lost under this proposal. Certainly, the sideboards used to guide future management decisions would not allow for an expansion of motorized use, but the Coalition felt strongly that where motorized use exists today, it is, for the most part – acceptable.

B. The Act would add a little more than 85,000 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. These lands that the Coalition selected fit the true intent of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and represent the wildest parts of the Front. From the West Fork of the Teton, down to the Deep Creek area (where, by the way, a mule deer buck was poached in 2007 that would have been a new state record) down to the Silver King/Falls Creek area, all of these areas are recommended wilderness ,or are managed for their wilderness qualities. These areas are all inventoried roadless areas, and hold the key to maintaining migration corridors for the Front’s iconic elk herds.

C. The third and very important part of the Act is the weed abatement and control component. When compared to other ecological threats, the impacts from noxious weeds is among the top concerns in terms of impact to wildlife habitat, and livestock grazing. The Rocky Mountain Front currently has manageable infestations of leafy spurge and a few other invasive species. Under the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the Forest Service would be required to develop a management plan that works in conjunction with current efforts undertaken by local weed roundtables and watershed groups. The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front is also searching for additional funding  that would augment the existing revenue streams and ensure that money appropriated for noxious weeds would be put on the ground rather than get absorbed by administrative costs or other, wasteful endeavors. The Coalition firmly believes that by acting aggressively and strategically now, we can keep invasive species from taking over prime elk and mule deer winter habitat and reduce the impacts to private ranching-livestock landowners thereby, continuing good stewardship practices on both the private and public lands.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act continues a century long vision for the Front; ensuring that it is a living, working landscape good for people and wildlife.  Keeping the wild in wildlife often means some critical areas need to be protected, the places that they use for security and reproduction as well as seasonal migration. When we look back over time from the establishment of the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913, to the Sun River Game Range established in 1948, to the creation of the Ear Mountain and the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area’s in the 60s and 70s to more recently in 2007 when MWF was instrumental in working with Coalition partners in a crowning achievement of securing the withdrawal of oil and gas leasing, MWF and its members have had a commitment to the wildest place in Montana, the Rocky Mountain Front for three-quarters of a century.

The Future

 The Trio of Land Conservation proposals exemplify new approaches to conservation, collaboration and landscape protection measures that can ensure wildlife, hunting, fishing and wild places in Montana while respecting private property interests and upholding private property rights. Separately, each proposal speaks to the willingness and courage of the stakeholders to reach across the aisle, and to work with interests that may have traditionally or once been aligned against each other. Each proposal has enough significance to be its own bill as ‘Made in Montana’ efforts. And, each typify a greater than 100 year history of Montanans working together to ensure that our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will always have these special places to enjoy. There has been some discussion about packaging the three measures together for efficiency believing that they will all help Montana conserve natural, public land landscapes while keeping our families and friends working in the forests and fields.  

 Regardless of the best political strategy for passage of the measures, they are all deserving of attention and the engagement by conservation minded hunters and anglers.

Courtesy of Lucas Ziemelka

Montana Wildlife Federation      5530 N. Montana Ave., Helena, MT 59601      Mailing address: PO Box 1175, Helena, MT 59624
Phone: 406-458-0227      Fax: 406-458-0373      Toll Free: 1-800-517-7256      Email:
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