Heritage Act divides Montana ranchers

Nov 18, 2011

Wilderness advocates and ranchers have often found themselves at loggerheads over how public lands should be managed; ranchers tend to support natural resource use while the wilderness crowd believes uses should be restricted for environmental and personal reasons.

Now, Sen. Max Baucus, D-MT, is hoping his newlyunveiled Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (the Act) will have something to please everyone. But ranchers are already divided over whether the legislation is a plus for the industry.

“It’s a homegrown, madein-Montana plan that is the result of a lot of folks across the state (who don’t always necessarily see eye to eye) working together to protect our ranching and hunting opportunities along the Front for generations to come,” Baucus stated on his website.

Jay Bodner, director of natural resources for the Montana Stockgrowers Association (Stockgrowers), indicated that although the Stockgrowers have taken no official position at this time, opinion in the ranching industry is definitely mixed.

“If you actually got right down to it, there are probably more opposed to it than in favor of it, but there is a split,” Bodner explained.

Four years in the making, the Heritage Act is the prod uct of an extensive collaboration between Montana ranchers, farmers, environmental groups and recreationists to craft legislation that is aimed at preserving wilderness and ranching for future generations. On Oct. 28, Baucus announced that he will be introducing the legislation to the present session of Congress.

The Act recommends that 67,000 acres be added to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and specifies that grazing and other “traditional uses” on this land would continue. Additionally, it calls for creating a 208,000-acre “Conservation Management Area” on the adjacent Lewis and Clark National Forest, on which no new roads could be built, but existing transportation routes would be protected. Grazing and other existing uses would be preserved.

The Act has garnered a wide range of support, from ranchers and hunters to various environmental groups including Defenders of Wildlife. Yet, not all stakeholders are thrilled with the Act. While some ranchers feel that the compromise will help to secure the future of grazing, others are concerned that a wilderness designation will threaten the long-term viability of their grazing permits.

Bodner explained that although the Act contains language that is intended to protect grazing permits on wilderness, much of that language could be subject to the interpretation, and the politics, of the local administrator.

“I think what it boils down to … is if the local ranger is pretty supportive of ranching and grazing, then you’re allowed to … take care of business,” Bodner said. “[But] if you have a [ranger] that’s not as supportive, he can make it a lot more difficult for you to … continue grazing in that allotment. You get to the point where you can’t do anything, and then you’re virtually pushed out, but not ‘technically.’” The Stockgrowers have been reluctant to create too much opposition to the bill, as Baucus has been a staunch ally on trade issues. But that hasn’t stopped some disenchanted ranchers from speaking out.

“There are a couple of ranchers up there that absolutely want nothing to do with additional wilderness,” said Bodner. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent