(Photo: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)
The country’s proposed defense bill, if passed, would protect the Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front and the North Fork of the Flathead River.
Montana’s congressional delegation of Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. John Walsh, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Steve Daines made the announcement Wednesday in a joint news conference.
The trio outlined eight lands and resources bills with no relation to the nation’s defense that have been attached as “riders” to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015.
The lawmakers called the bipartisan agreement on proposed measures “historic.”
Environmental groups don’t agree on the benefits.
One critic blasted using riders to pass the measures.
Tester said the bills were put into the defense bill because there was no other vehicle to get them across the finish line.
And there was no way to get time on the floor of the Senate or House to take up a Montana-specific bill.
“That’s why we’re putting them on a bill that’s not Montana specific,” Tester said.
The result will be the same if the legislation is passed, which is protecting the state’s most treasured places, Tester said.
The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act first was introduced by former Sen. Max Baucus after being proposed by the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front seven years ago.
The act would protect 208,000 acres in a new designation called a Conservation Management Area on the Front in Lewis and Clark National Forest, from its southern boundary north to Dupuyer.
That designation is not as restrictive as wilderness but would keep protections now in place in the Forest Service’s travel plan in place permanently. It also would add 67,000 aces of new wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which includes the Scapegoat Wilderness.
Areas of forest in the Falls Creek area south of Augusta would be added to the Scapegoat Wilderness. Areas near Deep Creek and the south Fork of the Teton River west of Choteau would be added to the Bob Marshall.
If passed, the Front bill would be the first new wilderness designation Montana has seen in more than 30 years, according to the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time, and it’s a great thing for the entire Montana delegation to come together to support it,” said Karl Rappold, a coalition member and Dupuyer-area rancher who was among those who crafted the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.
Matthew Koehler, director of the WildWest Institute, said what’s being billed as a landmark package of public land legislation will allow more logging, grazing, mining and private use of public land in the West.
Public land bills in other states also were attached to the defense bill.
“The Congress doesn’t want the public to know the specifics of what’s in the bill because if the public actually had time to go over this massive package of bills they would realize we have really given up a lot to get very little in terms of public lands protection or wilderness protection,” Koehler said.
The bill, which is more than 1,600 pages, is so big it will take awhile to figure out what’s in it, he said, adding it’s the result of secretive horsetrading and exchanging of pork barrel projects.
The Grazing Improvement Act is also attached to the national defense bill. If approved, it would extend the life of grazing permits on federal lands from 10 to 20 years, and allow grazing permits to be renewed while National Environmental Policy Act review is underway.
Koehler said the provision guarantees that the sage grouse will be listed as an endangered species.
“They’ve not only thrown democracy under the bus, but they’ve thrown science completely out the window,” Koehler said. “This is all about politicians bringing earmarks and pork back to constituents.”
Montana lawmakers said it would provide ranchers with greater certainty.
There’s 6.8 million acres of wilderness-eligible land awaiting protection in Montana, and the Front bill only protects 67,000, Koehler noted. And the Front Act, Koehler added, mandates continued private grazing on public lands.
Daines had not previously said publicly whether he would support the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.
In a change from the original legislation, the new version releases 14,000 acres of wilderness study areas in southeastern Montana.
It also requires a new assessment of oil and gas potential in the Bridge Coulee and Musselshell Breaks Wilderness Study Areas.
A news release from the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front said the Heritage Act strikes a balance of uses among those who make their living from the land and those who recreate on it. It would maintain all grazing opportunities that ranchers currently receive. It would allow chainsaws, game carts and all existing motorized use to continue within the 208,000-acre Conservation Management Area created under the Act. It would direct the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to prioritize noxious weed management on the Front, a threats to both public and private lands.
“Passage of the Heritage Act would be an enormous victory for all Montanans and for our magnificent outdoor heritage,” said Gerry Jennings, longtime Montana Wilderness Association council member who has been working for many years to protect the Rocky Mountain Front.
Another act attached to the defense bill would block industrial development on 430,000 acres in the North Fork of the Flathead River drainage on the western boundary of Glacier National Park.
“We still aren’t across the finish line,” said Tester, adding he was hopeful that the defense authorization bill would be approved with the Montana provisions in them.
Voters are calling for cooperation, and lawmakers need to “break through partisan gridlock,” Daines said.
The House may vote on the defense bill as early as today, Daines said. The Senate could take up the bill next week.
If passed, the defense bill would go to President Barack Obama, who will act late this year or early in 2015. The land bills would become effective immediately upon his approval.
Walsh said the only way the Montana-specific legislation will not pass is if the defense bill is defeated.
“We’re confident both the House and Senate are going to pass the National Defense Authorization Act,” Walsh said.
Using a football analogy, Daines said the bills “are in the red zone” and that the delegation was “very close to putting some points on the board for the people of Montana.”
Another provision inserted in the bill is called the Cabin Fee Act. It would cap fees people pay to lease cabins in U.S. forests. Those fees have been rapidly rising. The legislation impacts more than 700 Montanans and 14,000 people nationwide.
Another bill involves a land exchange between a private party, the Bureau of Land Management and the Northern Cheyenne in southeastern Montana that would return 5,000 acres of subsurface mineral rights to the tribe. The current owner of those 5,000 acres of mineral rights, which are within the boundaries of the current reservation, will receive different land off the reservation from the Bureau of Land Management. In turn, the owner will turn over the mineral rights to the tribe .Restoring these rights corrects a federal error made over 100 years ago, Tester’s office said.
Another provision would make permanent a pilot program in the Miles City office of the BLM that speeds up the process for oil and gas permits.
And the Bureau of Reclamation Conduit Hydropower Development Equity and Jobs Act removes what the lawmakers call outdated federal statutes that currently prevent irrigation districts in Montana and other western states from developing hydropower on Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) canals, ditches, and conduits — four of which are in Montana.
The East Bench Irrigation District Act, which also is in the bill, authorizes the Interior Department to extend the water contract between the U.S. and the East Bench Irrigation District for six more years.
One major public land bill that is not in the defense bill is Tester’s Forest Jobs bill.
It would have designated 637,000 acres of land as wilderness, and 360,000 acres as less-restrictive recreation areas. It also would require that 100,000 acres of timber in the Kootenai and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests be harvested or thinned over 15 years.
Tester said he pushed hard for the bill, but it made people nervous because it would change how land was managed.
Reach Karl Puckett at 406-791-1471, email@example.com. Twitter” @GFTrib_KPuckett.