- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - President Barack Obama has signed wilderness legislation that preserves large areas of land in the North Fork of the Flathead and on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, hailed the legislation as a victory for the state and for bipartisanship.

Obama signed the bill Friday, shortly after Tester met with wildland advocates in the North Fork to celebrate their success, the Missoulian reported (https://bit.ly/1GEm9IH ).

The measures were added as riders to the National Defense Authorization Act. Tester and Sen. John Walsh worked with Sen.-elect Steve Daines to include the wilderness designations and six other Montana lands bills in a broader lands package, and the legislation passed the Senate last week by a vote of 89-11.

“The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the North Fork Protection Act and the other Montana lands bills in this historic legislation will preserve special places and outdoors traditions while strengthening our economy,” Tester said.

Daines, R-Mont., also applauded Obama’s approval.

“The resources, lands and defense provisions in the NDAA represent years of locally driven, bipartisan work in Montana - and, more importantly, it represents how much we can get done when folks come together and find common ground,” Daines said in a written statement.

“This bill ensures that Montana will continue to play a key role in maintaining a strong national defense,” Daines said. “It also protects some of our state’s greatest treasures, increases Montanans’ access to our public lands, and expands the responsible development of our energy.”

The National Defense Authorization Act contains $585 billion in Pentagon discretionary spending and more than $63 billion in overseas contingency operations. It also includes a package of 70 public land management bills that designate about 390 square miles as new wilderness while protecting other lands from energy development.

Eight Montana bills are in the package. They include the North Fork Preservation Act, which protects about 600 square miles west of Glacier National Park from energy exploration.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would add about 105 square miles to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It also designates 325 square miles of conservation management areas and a new noxious weed control program.

The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act restores mineral rights to about 8 square miles on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and opens up 112 million tons of coal for mining.

The Cabin Fee Act stabilizes cabin rental pricing for about 700 buildings on federal lands.

The Bureau of Reclamation Conduit Hydropower Development Equity and Jobs Act allows creation of hydropower facilities on canals and irrigation projects. The East Bench Irrigation District Act extends the project’s water contract for six years.

Wilderness study areas to be reclassified for multiple use include two Bureau of Land Management parcels at Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Two more BLM parcels will be reassessed for oil and gas potential, involving about 23 square miles at Mussellshell Breaks and Bridge Coulee, both just south of the U-L Bend portion of the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. Those reviews must take place within five years, after which Congress could be asked to remove their wilderness study area status if energy potential is discovered.

The North Fork Protection Act was a legacy of former Montana Sen. Max Baucus, and one he’d been working on for almost 40 years. It completes an agreement with British Columbia and the Canadian government to protect the entire drainage of the Flathead River from energy development.

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Information from: Missoulian, https://www.missoulian.com

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