All is not quiet on the Rocky Mountain Front

  Last October, conservationists won a surprise victory for Montana's Rocky Mountain Front when Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora banned new oil and gas leases for the next 10 to 15 years (HCN,10/13/97).

But the story wasn't over. On Feb. 5, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced a bill to permanently ban new oil and gas exploration in the adjoining Lewis and Clark and Flathead national forests. To compensate oil and gas companies, the bill offers leaseholders several options, including bidding credits to acquire off-shore leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Baucus says his bill would end the long-running conflict over leasing in the Badger-Two Medicine Area of the Lewis and Clark, near Glacier National Park, an area the Blackfeet regard as sacred.

Chevron, a primary lease-holder in the Badger-Two Medicine, supports the bill. Elsewhere in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, McMahon-Bullington, the only lease-holder in the Blackleaf Canyon near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, says it hasn't made a decision.

If McMahon-Bullington surrenders its lease, the only leases remaining in the greater Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area would be on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Just weeks after Flora's flat "no," however, BLM area manager Richard Hopkins announced that drilling could begin in the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area. The resulting public outcry led Hopkins' superiors to reverse his decision. The BLM says it is reviewing its oil and gas leasing policies and philosophy with its neighbors at the Lewis and Clark National Forest. "In an issue this sensitive," said BLM spokesman Greg Albright, "exactly how and who in the BLM would sign off on the leases is not yet known."

* JT Thomas

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