Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation

For North America’s Blackfeet Indians, the procession of peaks they lived beside was Mistakis, the Backbone of the World. Today, more people know this majestic section of the Rocky Mountains as the Crown of the Continent, forming the continental divide for 250 miles between western Montana’s Blackfoot River and the southern edge of Canada’s Banff National Park. The centerpiece is a union of Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta with adjoining Glacier National Park in Montana. Declared Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in 1932, it stands as world’s first transboundary nature preserve. This and other publicly owned lands such as state or provincial parks, forest reserves, and designated wilderness areas comprise well over half of the Crown. As a result, enough habitats remain intact and interconnected that virtually all the native flora and fauna are still present, including the largest grizzly bear population left in the lower 48 states.

What will happen to the region’s exceptional natural qualities as more and more humans and their activities are added to the setting? Debates pitting conservation against development have raged through the scenic mountain West for decades. But things are changing as people tire of the shouting matches. Besides, the old polarized views have grown increasingly irrelevant. With recreation – general tourism, hiking, camping, skiing, wildlife-watching, hunting, fishing, kayaking, commercial rafting, and so on – having emerged a major employer and leading source of revenue, taking care of the environment these days is taking care of business. In fact, recreation is close to surpassing agriculture as the number one industry in Montana as a whole.

From Africa’s savannas to the Rockies, LCAOF has long promoted workshops, educational campaigns, and field research projects that address the needs of wild and human communities together. Given its support of cooperative strategies for conservation, the Foundation is encouraged by two examples of recent progress in the Crown:

1.) On November 21, 2013, the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously recommended passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, The bill, forwarded by Montana Senator Max Baucus, would add 67,112 acres to the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and designate another 208,160 acres as a Conservation Management Area. Lobbyists didn’t craft the proposal. Rather, it comes from a coalition of traditional ranching families, local business and community leaders, sportsmen, and other outdoor enthusiasts, all seeking to maintain the wide-open, wildlife-rich character of this landscape where the Rockies drop spectacularly onto the Great Plains. Within the Conservation Management Area, general public access, grazing, timber thinning, and motorized travel would be kept at present levels, while the new wilderness acreage would guarantee permanent protection for national forest acreage currently managed as roadless. Years of hard work went into forging this collaborative agreement between citizens formerly entrenched in opposing camps. What happens next as the Front Heritage Act makes its way through America’s fractious Congress is tough to predict. The only certainty is that this bill, if passed, would mark the first new wilderness for Montana in almost 20 years.      

2.) Across the Continental Divide on the deep-forested western side of the Crown, the Wild and Scenic North Fork of the Flathead River marks the border between Glacier Park and the Whitefish Range. The majority of that Range – 300,000 acres – is under the jurisdiction of the Flathead National Forest, which is preparing to update its forest plan. In the past, the agency’s periodic review of its guidelines for activities spurred snowmobilers, motorcyclists, ATV riders, mountain bikers, loggers, area homeowners, backcountry advocates, wildlife supporters, and other interest groups to begin fighting for a larger share of influence. This time around, the main user groups agreed to meet as a coalition calling itself the Whitefish Range Partnership – and to keep meeting until they arrived at a mutually accepted outcome.

On November 18, 2013 (three days before the Senate committee endorsed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the Partnership celebrated the signing of a breakthrough agreement clearly benefitting the Flathead environment and its economy alike. It called for increasing the timber base for logging by two-thirds and ensuring plentiful access to areas favored by motorized recreationists. At the same time, it asked that most roadless areas continue to be managed for backcountry values and requested wilderness designation for 85,000 acres close to British Columbia wildlands in the North Fork headwaters. Although Flathead Forest planners still have to review input from the general public, officials have spoken highly of the win-win proposal the Partnership hammered out. Once again, establishing new wilderness areas will need Congressional approval, and no one can guess when or if that might come. Considering the trouble Washington politicians have had overcoming their differences to reach consensus on anything lately, maybe they should take a lesson on moving ahead from folks in the Continent’s Crown.

written by Douglas Chadwick
image ©Jeff Van Tine