Urgent news from the front

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    Mark Wilson and Aaron Jones
  The battle over whether to industrialize Montana's Rocky Mountain Front has heated up, thanks to a proposal from the Forest Service to allow new oil and gas leases in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.


The preferred alternative in a draft environmental impact statement would make 52 percent of the 1.8 million-acre forest available for leasing, says Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora.


But in a recent press release, the Forest Service also says its plan would protect 91 percent of what it called the "Rocky Mountain Division." Gene Sentz of Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front says the agency's 91 percent figure misleads people, since half the "Division" includes the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness, and wilderness cannot be leased.


"I'm concerned the Forest Service has confused the public into thinking the Front is protected, when it isn't," Sentz says.


The argument over numbers is just one facet of the debate which continued during six public hearings held throughout Montana during September. At five of the hearings, participants overwhelmingly opposed the agency's leasing option, citing the potential impact of new roads, pipelines and wells on elk and mule deer herds, bighorn sheep and grizzlies that migrate to the Front's plains in winter. Outfitters such as Lass Miels, from Augusta, Mont., called the Front a "lifeline for free-ranging wildlife that must not be cut." She and other locals told the Forest Service that the eastern Rockies might not be officially designated wilderness, but that fact doesn't register with bears and big game.


Only in Billings did industry supporters outnumber opponents, arguing development would bring jobs and needed oil and gas resources to the region.


This isn't the first time that the eastern edge of the Rockies, which borders the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the west and Glacier National Park to the north, has been targeted for development. John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association says the public has been fighting oil and gas drilling in the area for 20 years.


In 1993, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt responded to protests by temporarily suspending activity on leases in the Badger-Two Medicine section of the Lewis and Clark Forest (HCN, 6/26/95). The Forest Service's draft EIS, however, fails to address problems created by these existing leases, says Jennifer Ferenstein of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Though Babbitt continues to suspend the leases year by year, the moratorium will eventually end, she says. When it does, the leases will still have three to seven years left, she says.


Opponents of oil and gas development are pushing for the designation of the entire area as "unavailable for leasing" under the no-action alternative.


Because of interest in the draft EIS, the comment period has been extended to Dec. 11. For more information or to comment, write to Supervisor Gloria Flora, Lewis and Clark National Forest, P.O. Box 869, Great Falls, MT 59403.


*Katie Fesus