More so than any other landscape in Big Sky Country, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front derives its wonder from a violent juxtaposition of geological forms. The Front is the convergence of two mega-ecosystems that together cover roughly a quarter of our country -- the Northern Plains and the Northern Rockies.
This is where each seemingly limitless region reaches its limit. Within this thin strip roams the second-largest elk herd in the Lower 48, as well as 13 species of raptor and a third of all plant species known in Montana. It's the only place south of the Canadian border where grizzlies still den between the peaks and the prairie.
For 100 years, this landscape has been the subject of vigorous debate over the limits of acceptable change. Montanans along the Front have fought back wave after wave of oil and gas exploration. It is a measure of their success that the battle cry of each generation has gradually shifted from our grandparents and great-grandparents, who wanted to "return it to the way it was," to our parents and ourselves, who now want to "keep it the way it is."
This last phrase -- keep it the way it is -- has for 10 years been the unofficial motto of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, a loose affiliation of outfitters, ranchers, farmers, community organizers, business owners and outdoor enthusiasts. Thanks to this coalition, the debate over change on the Front is now closer to resolution than ever before.
Last October, Montana Sen. Max Baucus introduced the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would designate 67,000 acres of wilderness and prohibit road building or any expansion of motorized use on an additional 210,000 acres. That's big news. Yet, the relative calm with which the news was received has been surprising. Only five or six years ago, the most common bumper sticker on pickup trucks nosed up to the curb at John Henry's bar and restaurant in Choteau, read: "Drill It!" But when I asked a veteran writer and former journalist for the Missoulian newspaper what he thought about the media coverage of Baucus' announcement, all he could say was, "I just don't understand why it hasn't gotten more attention."
His words followed me to the Front where I retreated for a hunting trip just a week after the announcement. While waiting on white-tailed deer that seemed wiser and a bit more cautious than they did last year, I found myself reflecting on the twists and turns of our local debate over change. I wondered why this pending resolution has been received so quietly after so much time and such a lot of fuss.
The coalition's many predecessors fought seemingly endless battles for the better part of a century, from the near-extinction of the buffalo and other species to agency road building and aggressive oil and gas exploration. Our first victory finally came in 2006, when Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and Democratic Sen. Max Baucus banned all leasing of federal minerals along the Front. Forest Service travel plan decisions that followed in 2007 and 2009 emphasized traditional use over motorized recreation, and suddenly, a once-complicated landscape was largely cleared of competing interests. We had a chance to catch our breath long enough to view the landscape with an eye for opportunities rather than obstacles.
It was then that farmers and ranchers affiliated with the coalition raised an important question: Would we have the restraint to avoid becoming agents of change ourselves? Over the next four years, we interviewed grazing permittees, argued with county commissioners, developed alliances, held meetings of 100 people and meetings of 10 people, and sought out hundreds of kitchen-table conversations, one person at a time.
We drew boundaries in pencil, then with a pen, then with pencil again, and eventually with a marker. We nearly fell out with each other several times, but we hung onto the ideal of restraint. In the end, it was not just the landscape that we chose to the keep the way it was. We chose to maintain all existing uses as well, including motorized and bicycle use alongside traditional horse and hiker travel.
So after going through so much, it's understandable that this final stage in the fight is underwhelming. Indeed, the only evident opposition to the Heritage Act so far came in the form of an indignant email from a small western Montana environmental group decrying the legislation as containing far too few wilderness acres. I mentioned this to a Vietnam veteran and local lawyer from Choteau, Mont., when I ran into him on my hunting trip. As he trailed his horse around me, he just shook his head and said, "Well, we've had that debate a million times before."
Yes, we have, and with any luck it won't change a thing.
Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He worked to preserve the Rocky Mountain Front from 2006-2009 while living in Choteau; he now lives in Missoula.