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Public Lands Compromise A 'Bittersweet Pill' For Some Environmentalists

Flickr user SBebee

Dupuyer-area rancher, Karl Rappold, is thrilled that the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act has finally passed.

"My grandparents and my mom and dad took care of this place. the bears and wolves and everything else. This is a historic deal for me to see that my grandkids and their grandkids will hopefully have this same view and this same region will be protected so it will never change," says Rappold.  

Last week Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act which now awaits President Obama's signature.

Tucked away in that massive military funding bill is an unrelated package of eight Montana lands and resources measures. Among other provisions, the rider blocks mining and drilling near Glacier National Park, and for the Rocky Mountain Front. It also gives the go-ahead to a mining project in Arizona and potential energy development elsewhere

Conservationist Matthew Koehler of the Missoula-based Wild West Institute says the Front is a special place.

"My family, we do hunting and fishing and hiking up there and I can certainly understand why people would want to see it protected," Koehler says.

But Koehler maintains the Front isn't much better-off now than it was before. He points out the N.D.A.A rider protects only a small portion of it as true wilderness. He also says the overall package leads to more taxpayer-subsidized public lands grazing, mining and oil and gas development.

"It's very important for everybody to balance any good in this public lands package with the tremendous amount of giveaways and the provisions that undermine and undercut America's public lands legacy," says Koehler; "not just for the next couple of years, but for the foreseeable future."

Gloria Flora says she understands Koehler's perspective.

The former supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest made headlines in 1997 after prohibiting natural gas leasing along the Rocky Mountain Front.

She now directs the non-profit Sustainable Obtainable Solutions organization and says overall, there’s more good than bad in the public lands rider. Flora characterizes it as a "bittersweet pill" that includes long-stalled important and collaborative legislation as well as a few "ringers".

According to Flora, those "ringers" include "the prohibition on listing the Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Also, the land exchange with Resolution Copper in Arizona, the rollback of regulations on banking; those kinds of things were - I believe them to be trading stock. Someone said, 'Well, if you want me to vote for this bill or support the lands package than you have to accept this.'"

Environmentalists disagree on the merits of the lands and resources package. The Wild West Institute's Matthew Koehler says he understands why some groups are trumpeting a measure that he says protects such a paltry amount of land.

"The way things work in D.C., a lot of those folks don't want to upset the Democrats, so they won't speak out against what happened here because they might need someone like a Senator Tester (D-Montana) down the road for some different provisions. So, a lot of times they stifle their own dissent because they feel like they're playing D.C politics. And when you play D.C politics and you're on the environmental side of the equation, a lot of times you need those democrats later on."

Flora says she disagrees with Koehler's assessment. "Frankly, I've had disappointment from both parties. I'm not playing to a party and I think  - I know - that other conservationists that I've worked with in the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front aren't playing up to a party. We expect both parties to step up to the line and support what the people want. Clearly the overwhelming majority of people have wanted the Rocky Mountain Front to be protected."

Back in Dupuyer, rancher Karl Rappold says he realizes the public lands rider isn't perfect and won’t satisfy everyone.

"It may grind some people the wrong way, but that's how business is done," Rappold says. "It takes compromise and it takes hard work. The bill itself probably would have never been able to stand alone if every little bill that came before Congress stood along on its own, they would never get anything accomplished. The way it was put into this defense bill, it concluded a bunch of other land packages and to me, it's just part of doing business."

The rider passed the senate last Friday. It now goes to President Obama for his signature or veto.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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