HELENA, Montana — A key congressional committee on Thursday unanimously endorsed a measure from U.S. Sen. Max Baucus to expand protections along the Rocky Mountain Front.
The bill would add 67,112 acres of new wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It also proposes designating 208,160 acres as a Conservation Management Area. That designation is not as restrictive as wilderness but would permanently keep in place protections in the Forest Service's travel plan.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced Baucus' Rocky Mountain Heritage Act with a voice vote.
Supporters say the land to be given a formal wilderness declaration already is being managed as a wilderness area. They argue current grazing, motorized and other uses are kept intact in the legislation to also protect those activities at current levels.
Baucus has said he proposed the measure in 2011 after locals who hashed out the details as a coalition brought him the idea.
Baucus said the bipartisan vote is a sign people were impressed that the bill was largely conceived by locals.
"This is so important to Montanans," Baucus said. "This is for our kids and grandkids. That is what makes it so special."
The large land-use legislation bill still faces a difficult path even if it clears the Senate. Support could be more difficult to find in the Republican-controlled U.S. House.
Montana U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who is backing his own forest bill focused on more logging, so far has taken no position on the Baucus measure.
Baucus said it is important that Daines has not opposed the Rocky Mountain Front bill. He said some Senate Republicans checked with the congressman before voting in favor of the measure.
Baucus, set to retire at the end of next year, said he will keep looking for ways to advance the measure.
"I feel like a running back, looking for daylight on the best way to proceed for a touchdown," Baucus said. "We will work on that. We will find it."
Supporters with the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front lauded Thursday's bipartisan vote as a sign the measure has a good chance in the full Senate.
"Folks on both ends of the political spectrum hashed this legislation out, so I'm pleased that spirit of cooperation was reflected back at us with today's unanimous vote," Teton County rancher Dusty Crary said in a statement.