If Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were governor of Montana, would the Rocky Mountain Front get highest-level protection from future oil and gas development?
You bet it
This May President Bush announced that he
intended to buy back more than $200 million worth of oil and gas
leases off the Florida coast and in the Everglades. It's an
election year, and the President's move to "save the glades" no
doubt helped his brother's campaign for re-election. Protecting
these unique areas was something people in Florida had
In describing why the
leases would be bought up, Interior Secretary Gale Norton reasoned
that the area in the Everglades has negligible energy reserves,
provides critical wildlife habitat and has powerful local advocates
for its preservation. These qualities perfectly describe Montana's
Rocky Mountain Front. But instead of suggesting a similar offer for
the Front, the administration seems willing to undo hard-won
Agriculture Secretary Ann
Veneman shocked Montanans last March by not ruling out gas
development on the Front, the 100-mile strip of wild land in
northwestern Montana where the Great Plains slam up against the
east front of the Rockies. "With the technology we have today we
can't preclude any options," Veneman said.
this statement a hint that the Bush administration might try to
overturn a 1997 decision to keep parts of the Lewis and Clark
National Forest on the Front free from new leasing? That decision,
strongly supported by the public, was appealed by industry but
upheld all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
the energy industry continues to push, and President Bush and vice
president Dick Cheney appear to have targeted the Front for natural
gas development. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the
Montana Thrust Belt, which takes in much of the western third of
Montana, including Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall
Wilderness, might hold 1.8 trillion cubic feet of natural
That sounds like a lot, until you realize
that this is only enough to supply current United States demand for
three or four weeks.
Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana says the Front contains "vast amounts"
of natural gas and that drilling "should at least be considered."
And Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., told
Washington Post that "everything ought to be
GOP Senate candidate Mike
Taylor also suggests that it's acceptable to exploit the Front for
gas. On the other hand, Democrat Sen. Max Baucus of Montana has
repeatedly supported protecting this splendid wild place from
industrial development and has offered legislation encouraging
Other supporters emerged after the
U.S. House last year approved a national energy bill that would
give away $33 billion in tax breaks to energy corporations, open
Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and encourage
extensive new oil and gas leasing on public lands, including the
Front. Some provisions of that bill were so environmentally
damaging that Rep. Nick Rahall, D-Wyo., wrote energy committee
chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that "... in the view of the
majority of the House Democratic Caucus, any final 'deal' on H.R. 4
containing (those provisions) is no deal, but rather, would be
subjected to ridicule and derision."
fishing organizations, including the National Rifle Association,
also got involved. They joined with wildlife professionals and
conservation groups in opposing the egregious provisions in the
House bill that would threaten wild ecosystems like the Front by
virtually mandating their development.
the Senate passed its own energy bill, somewhat better than the
House version. But it still encouraged continued dependence on
fossil fuels and their increased extraction from national forest
and Bureau of Land Management lands. House and Senate conferees are
now working to piece together a compromise energy bill for
President Bush to sign.
Judging from the
president's executive order last spring, which told federal
agencies to speed up permitting and development of public lands,
those who love the Rocky Mountain Front had better stay informed
about this pending energy bill. If the House provisions prevail,
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey could be given authority to
reverse the Lewis and Clark Forest decision banning new leases on
the Front. It's likely the former industry lobbyist would then opt
to road and drill.
Those of us who love this area
of wild land and wildlife want to strengthen, not weaken,
protection for the Front. Just like Florida's Everglades "- in
fact, exactly like Florida's Everglades "- Montana's Rocky Mountain
Front is a national treasure.