DUPUYER, Montana — Montana’s spectacular Rocky Mountain Front is known for its window-rattling winds. But Karl Rappold, a former rodeo cowboy who raises cattle here, says he was still surprised to get blown out of his saddle — literally — while herding stock last year. The winds that day were clocked at over 120 mph, which wasn’t even a record.
"It’s all part of the deal," he says of the wind, the cold, the isolation and the unvarnished beauty of the land. "It’s hard to describe what it does for me. I guess mostly it gives me a feeling of being home."
The raw-boned Rappold, 52, is a lifelong Republican who voted for George W. Bush in 2000. But, he says, he won’t do that again.
Rappold is riled at the president for relentlessly pushing oil and gas development on public lands, no matter how valuable they might be as wildlife habitat, or how much economic importance they might have to local ranchers and outfitters. He’s vowed to do everything he can to stop exploration on the Front, a position that he says has tarnished his standing among some fellow stockgrowers.
"I’m probably the most hated person around here. But if the people around here don’t wake up, their children and their grandchildren will never see what it was like here," he explains. "The reason I talk so much for the Front is that it is the last place left. I don’t think George Bush would drill a well at the White House. I don’t think there’s any place for it on the Front."
Many Montanans thought the threat of oil and gas wells on their beloved Rocky Mountain Front was extinguished when Gloria Flora, then supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, instituted a landmark ban on new leases about seven years ago.
But Flora’s moratorium, which has withstood industry court challenges, didn’t cover already-awarded leases. Now a Canadian firm, Startech Energy Inc., is asking the Bureau of Land Management for permission to drill three new natural gas wells inside the Blind Horse Outstanding Natural Area. Startech eventually wants to tap into two other wells that were shut down in the 1980s. While the leases were sold long before Bush came into office, the administration has pushed agencies to expedite environmental reviews.
The company’s proposal would include at least four acres of prime wildlife habitat for a well pad in a secluded basin, construction of eight miles of new pipeline and extension of a rugged two-track road. The BLM began hosting public meetings on the proposal this spring, and a draft environmental impact statement is expected later this year. So far, the agency has been inundated with opposition to the Startech plan.
According to a new analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data by The Wilderness Society, the Blackleaf area of the Front, which is now being studied for development, contains less than a day’s worth of natural gas for the nation at current consumption rates. It holds an estimated 15 minutes’ worth of oil.
"If this little pocket of energy here on the Front is going to save the nation, we’re in a world of hurt," Rappold says.
Rappold says he’s always had a conservationist bent. When he was a boy, he and his father trapped animals, but the younger Rappold later decided "it was a waste to kill for fur." Though some of his neighbors don’t agree with his opinions, he says ranchers on the Front have a special obligation to manage their land in concert with the natural world.
Rappold says he keeps his stock numbers low on the 7,000-acre family ranch just south of Glacier National Park, primarily to give the area’s wildlife more feed and elbow room. "To me, you can’t put a price on riding out there at daylight and hearing bull elk screaming in the aspen grove," he says. "We’ve got 1,000-pound grizzlies on this place."
Unless archaic eminent domain laws are forced upon them, Rappold and his family don’t have to worry about oil and gas development on their property. Rappold owns the rights to the minerals beneath his land, and he cancelled all the energy leases after he took over the ranch from his father in the 1980s. "I told them to get the hell off and not come back," he says. Then Rappold, who sits on The Nature Conservancy’s local advisory board, put conservation easements on most of his land.
Now, he’s taken another unusual stand, in hope of winning permanent protection for much of the public land on the Front. He’s calling for federal wilderness designation on the lands that abut the existing Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness complex.
Rappold traveled to Washington, D.C., in April to meet with federal officials and to push for the protection of remaining wildlands in the area. He was joined by outfitter Chuck Blixrud, Blackfeet tribal member Hugo Johnson, and Montana Wilderness Association organizer Candi Zion. They spoke with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who has long supported protections for the Front (HCN, 4/13/98), and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who — for the first time — said he might support trading existing oil and gas leases for other leases in less-sensitive areas.
"It all boils down to the fact that everybody has to see a chunk of money out of the Front," Rappold says. "They just can’t stand seeing it sit there. Not every ounce of land should be producing a dollar. Some of it should be left alone, as it always has been."
The author writes from Helena, Montana. For more information about protecting the Rocky Mountain Front, see www.savethefront.net. To learn more about the Startech proposal, go to www.mt.blm.gov.
This story is funded by the generous donors to the "Who Will Take Over the Ranch" project, a series of stories on the plight of the West’s private lands.