On the morning of Dec. 18, Gene Sentz stood in a cow pasture on the Crary Ranch near Choteau, Montana. To the west was the Rocky Mountain Front, its bare foothills of short-grass prairie rising abruptly into snow-capped peaks and rolling limestone reefs. Dressed in blue jeans and a canvas jacket, he listened to his friend Dusty Crary talk to a clutch of reporters, who were huddled with about 30 other Montanans against a cold wind.
“When we got word this was gonna happen,” Crary began, referring to passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, “I told my wife, ‘This is Gene Sentz’s day.’ ”
Sentz bowed his head so that only his bushy white beard showed beneath a wool hunting cap that had faded from red to pink over the years. Then the retired teacher and longtime horse-packer stepped to the front of the group to stand alongside Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh. The senators had worked with Montana Republican Rep. Steve Daines to pass the Heritage Act a few days earlier.
The bill protects 275,000 acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management land that biologists consider to be among the top 1 percent of wildlife habitat in the country. And it designates the first new wilderness in Montana in 31 years, adding 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas. The bill also protects 208,000 acres in a conservation management area, which prevents the expansion of motorized use, prohibits new roads and protects horse, foot and cycling trails.
A modest man, Sentz began by saying, “Thank you,” in such a low voice that several reporters leaned in just to hear his words. “Everybody here has had a hand in this,” he added, “whether they’ve been involved almost four decades or four months.”
There is no doubt that Sentz belongs to the first of these two categories, having begun his crusade to protect the Front in 1977. His humble organization, Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front, started as a phone tree and newsletter, whose stamps -- hundreds of them –- were the volunteer group’s major expense.
Back in 1982, the Lewis and Clark National Forest had leased every acre of the Front for oil and gas development, and major companies were buying those acres up. The Friends rallied around a wilderness bill designed in part to protect the Front, but President Reagan vetoed the bill in 1988. Following this defeat, a larger coalition formed around the Friends, including the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Lawsuits kept drillers at bay until 1997, when Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora suspended mineral leasing on a total of 356,000 acres. In 2006, Montana Sens. Max Baucus, D, and Conrad Burns, R, passed legislation making the suspension permanent. The coalition then began working on legislation that would freeze current management for the future. After countless kitchen table conversations, 10 public meetings and eight more years, the Heritage Act passed the House and the Senate with bipartisan support.
Gene Sentz was 37 when he started fighting for the Front; now he’s 74 and is beginning to show signs of age. Last year, while hiking on the Front, he had a heart attack.
“I got almost to the top of the ridge, and I knew what was going on,” he explained. “I had some aspirins in my pocket, and I immediately sat down. I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is a pretty nice spot. I can see all around and this is a good place to go.’ ”
After 20 minutes, though, he decided that he might make it. He walked out and was taken by Flight for Life to Great Falls that afternoon, where he had two stents installed the same day.
After the press conference ended, I asked Gene how he was feeling. “Well, I’ll tell ya,” he said in his usual slow-and-steady tone of voice. “The only thing that bothers me now is this here.” He rapped his knuckles on his right knee, which has been barking at him lately.
“But,” he continued, “my daughter, Sarah, had me on top of Old Man of the Hills just this summer, so I think I’m doing all right.”
Then he suddenly took several long strides to intercept Sen. Tester, leaving me to gaze north along the Front toward Old Man of the Hills, a mountain that rises 8,229 feet above the prairie like a ship’s prow breaking waves on an vast ocean. The Front, considered the backbone of the world by the Blackfeet people, continued north from there, beyond my line of sight.
Like Gene, it just never seems to quit.
Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a conservationist in Missoula, Montana.
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