AUGUSTA, Mont. - Locals call it "the Front," a name that conjures up a battleline between armies. But for now, the fight is over between environmentalists who want to protect the wildlife that flourishes here, and oil and gas executives who want to drill for up to 3.6 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas that may be buried here (HCN, 6/26/95).

The victors, according to Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora, are the many Americans who demanded protection for the area.

"It's time for everyone to sit back and say, 'Gee, we've been working for decades to protect the Rocky Mountain Front and, by George, we did it,'" Flora said.

"We're ecstatic," said Gene Sentz, a Choteau, Mont., resident and longtime fighter against industrializing the Front.

In a final environmental impact statement issued Sept. 23, Flora approved no gas or oil leasing along her forest's section of the Overthrust Belt, a geological formation that runs under the mountains from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone National Park.

In that portion of the Front, stark, jagged peaks dramatically thrust out of the prairie, attracting many tourists and hikers. The area is home to a diverse collection of wildlife, including the last remnant of plains grizzly bears. Thousand of hunters flock to the Front every autumn.

For decades, the grandeur of the Front's massive granite walls deterred most development here. But with the booming Waterton gas field to the north in Alberta, Canada, Montana wildcatters wanted to see what's hidden in their section of the Overthrust Belt.

Gail Abercrombie, head of the Montana Petroleum Association, called the decision not to lease, "unfortunate." "

"We know that there is the potential on the Front for one or more gas fields with the production capacity of the Waterton field in Canada," " she said. "The revenues to the state and schools over the life of such a field would be in excess of a billion dollars and the land disturbance would be less than one half of 1 percent of the forest's 1.2 million acres." "

Flora's decision came as a surprise to many environmentalists, since originally she had leaned toward allowing some restricted leasing. Alternative 7 would have banned wildcatters from setting up rigs along a mile-wide corridor of national forest land abutting the Front, and stretching 70 miles north and south. But they would have been able to put rigs on adjacent private lands, drilling at an angle to reach oil or gas under public lands.

Also, at some locations - such as Blackleaf Canyon, northwest of Choteau, and Elk Creek and Cuniff Basin, outside Augusta - wildcatters could have explored along a one-mile corridor bordering existing roads.

Now that's out of the question, although a few existing leases in some drainages will not be affected.

Oil and gas companies claim that modern drilling technology can extract gas with minimal environmental harm. But Flora said she thought the 50-50 chance of striking paydirt was not worth the risk at a time when there is already plenty of natural gas available.

Mark Good of the Montana Wilderness Association, which has appealed many Forest Service decisions during the last decade, said of this one: "We're delighted. I think we dodged a bullet because of broad-based public support. It seems as if the Forest Service is actually following its original mandate to protect wildlife and wildlands legacy."

It is true that many Montanans cherish the Front. Despite the allure of potential jobs and state revenues generated by the gas industry, a dramatic majority of Montanans polled by the Great Falls Tribune in September said they wanted the Front left alone. Fifty-two percent opposed drilling, while 24 percent favored it. The rest hadn't made up their minds.

In her record of decision, Flora wrote that many people from around the country contacted her to "express heartfelt emotions about a place they considered special." " That helped her make the decision, she said.

If not reversed through the appeal process, the decision will stand for at least 10 years, the normal run for a forest planning cycle.

If conditions have changed at that time - a national security crisis emerges or a new drilling technology is developed - then the forest supervisor could take another look at the issues.

Flora expected more support for her original plan to allow restricted leasing, but says she's more than satisfied with the outcome.

"I'm happy," " she said. "This makes me feel good." "

 

Mark Matthews writes in Missoula, Montana.

You can ...

  • Write the Montana Wilderness Association at P.O. Box 635. Helena, MT 59624 (406/443-7350), or,
  • Write Lewis and Clark National Forest at 1101 15th St. North, P.O. Box 869, Great Falls, MT, 59403 (406/791-7700).
  • Contact the Montana Petroleum Association at P.O. Box 1186, Helena, MT 59624-1186 (406/442-7582).