- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 3, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A suite of public lands-related legislation affecting Montana is poised to advance after it was attached to a defense bill expected to come up for a vote in coming days, members of the state’s Congressional delegation announced Wednesday.

Included are measures to create new wilderness along the Rocky Mountain Front, block mining and drilling near Glacier National Park and return 5,000 acres of coal reserves to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe as part of a complex exchange.

U.S. Senators John Walsh and Jon Tester - both Democrats - and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines collaborated to get the legislation attached to the pending defense authorization bill.

The three held a joint news conference Wednesday in which they described the lands package as “historic.”

“The entire Montana delegation has come to an agreement on a lands package that will not only preserve some of our state’s most treasured places, it will also help power Montana’s economy,” Tester said.

Some of the bills included in the package have languished for years, such as the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act introduced by Walsh’s predecessor, Sen. Max Baucus.

Under a compromise, the heritage act was altered to release for other uses 14,000 acres within two wilderness study areas in southeast Montana. Also added was a requirement for the government to study the oil and gas potential for the Bridge Coulee and Musselshell Breaks Wilderness Study Areas in central Montana.

None of those areas is along the Rocky Mountain Front, a picturesque region where the Rocky Mountains meet the Plains, stretching north of Lincoln toward Glacier National Park.

The House is expected to vote on the $585 million bipartisan defense bill this week, and the Senate will consider it next week. The defense bill is one of the few bipartisan measures in Congress that has successfully made it to the president’s desk for decades.

Daines, who won the November election to replace Walsh, said the eight bills included in the Montana lands package strike a balance between land preservation and the economy, such as extending the duration of grazing permits on federal lands from 10 years to 20 years.

Other provisions would revise federal laws to encourage small-scale hydropower projects, establish a new fee system for cabin owners on public lands, and retain a U.S. Bureau of Land Management field office in Miles City to speed up oil and gas permitting by the agency.

Walsh, who is leaving office in January, said the delegation was determined to get the package passed during the lame duck congressional session.

Conspicuously absent from the legislative package was Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. First introduced in 2009, it would expand wilderness and mandate more logging on federal lands.

Tester said he had pushed hard to include it, but the prospect of changing the way the U.S. Forest Service manages land made people in Washington, D.C., nervous.

The inclusion of the Northern Cheyenne coal exchange was criticized by a Billings-based conservation group as a give-away to a Houston company that stands to benefit from the deal. Under the three-way swap, Great Northern Properties would transfer a large coal reserve to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. In exchange, the company would receive from the Interior department an estimated 112 million tons of coal near Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain coal mine near Roundup.

The swap would fix a mistake made in 1900, when the government expanded the reservation but failed to acquire the underlying minerals.

Steve Charter, who chairs the Northern Plains Resource Council and ranches near the Bull Mountain mine, said it amounts to a subsidy of Great Northern. “What the heck is this doing in a defense bill? It deserved a full debate,” he said.

Others voiced support for the package. A coalition of ranchers, hunters and others supporting the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act applauded the delegation for getting that legislation “as close as it’s ever been to becoming law.”

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