HELENA — U.S. Sen. Max Baucus told wilderness advocates Thursday that he is still undecided about taking their proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act to Congress.
Conservationists tout the proposal as a compromise among varied groups aimed at keeping development and road access on the front at its current levels.
They propose adding more than 50,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and almost 17,000 acres to the Scapegoat Wilderness. Another 208,000 acres would be designated a conservation management area intended to protect current uses.
The scenic region where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains stretches north of Lincoln toward Glacier National Park.
Supporters say that grazing rights and access would remain the same, and a promise will be made not to cut the number of miles of roads and trails open to motorized use.
The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front says its plan would also retain over 300 miles of trails and roads and offers some flexibility for new bike trails in the future.
Baucus opened a Helena forum on the issue on Thursday by saying he wasn't ready to carry their proposal in Congress, but he hinted that he may do so in the future.
"I have not made a firm decision on whether to introduce this proposal yet," Baucus said. "I will do what I think is right. And I think you won't be displeased."
Baucus said he wants to listen to more comments from the public before committing to sponsoring the plan.
Baucus also on Thursday stopped in Augusta and Great Falls to hear from locals about the proposal. Another session was scheduled Friday for Choteau.
Joe Perry, a Brady wheat farmer who said he recreates in the Rocky Mountain Front area, said he hopes the proposal will once and for all end recurrent arguments over road access and development.
Wilderness advocates are getting far less than they want in order to broker a deal with other interest groups, like public land ranchers and backcountry horseman.
He said it protects from unwanted change from outside interests.
"I call it freezing in time what we have right now," Perry said.
The project has been in the making for years, and has been modified over that time such as when almost 30,000 acres in the Helena National Forest were dropped from a proposal to satisfy Lincoln residents.