Tending the Front

It was the late 1950s when my dad and I headed over Headquarters Pass along the Rocky Mountain Front. We were packing into Gate’s Park for a week’s stay. Weather hung foggy, eerie, the rocks slick. We rode toward the last pitch; a few scrawny trees poked through hard ground. Suddenly, my dad stopped and pointed at two grizzly cubs scrambling along the boulders yards away. Our horses seemed unconcerned by their presence. Wisps of fog lifted as the cubs’ darting forms disappeared over a ridge.

Perhaps on that trip or the next, we encountered a man on a motorcycle riding up the Headquarters trail. Our horses shied nervously as he stopped and let us pass. Just a few years later, in 1964, Congress designated the area as wilderness, one of the first places to receive that designation. Since then, motorized machinery is not allowed in the 20-million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and grizzly bears have become more numerous, following their listing as a threatened species in the 1970s.

It took a community of landowners and outfitters like Alice Gleason; writers and teachers like A.B. “Bud” Guthrie Jr. and Gene Sentz; conservationists like Dave Carr; agency leaders like Gloria Flora and Gary Sullivan, and elected officials from both sides of the aisle to make sure the Rocky Mountain Front and surrounding lands remain today much as they were not only in the 1950s, but long before. Over the years, almost 200,000 acres have been placed under conservation easements, meaning the land will never be subdivided. This includes a property near the Teton Pass Ski Area where my daughter now runs stock for her outfitting business.

Withdrawing public lands from oil and gas development was more contentious. As a Teton County Commissioner at the time, I supported U.S. senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns in pushing for mineral withdrawal of Forest Service lands from Glacier Park all the way south to Highway 200. My colleagues did not.

For nearly a decade, the Coalition for the Rocky Mountain Front – a group of local ranchers, sportsmen, and outfitters along with conservation organizations – has worked to add wilderness and establish a Conservation Management Area on public lands along the Front to keep uses as they exist now. In December 2014, Congress passed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act with bipartisan support from Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

Antelope and elk roam, cattle graze and people ride mountain bikes on back country trails, but the Front remains a place slowed by time and kept as is by the hard work of many folks. Sometime this summer I’ll probably ride my horse up Headquarters Pass again and maybe catch a glimpse of grizzly cubs frolicking in fog. 

As A.B. Guthrie Jr. said: “Progress leaves us no retreat.”

—Mary Sexton