Perseverance pays off for the Rocky Mountain Front

A 37-year crusade ends in new protections

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.