Montana's Rocky Mountain Front: Sell It or Save It?

  • Rocky Mountain Front in Montana

    Diane Sylvain
  • Packing near Feather Mtn. and Heart Butte on Rocky Mtn. Front

    Gene Sentz
  • Hiker on Morningstar Mtn. in Badger-Two Medicine area

    Gene Sentz
  • Gene Sentz by Blue Lake in Badger-Two Medicine country

    Rocky Heckman

... And Daddy, won't you take me back to

Muhlenberg County,

Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay?

Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking,

Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away.

                                                                               -- John Prine

The early years of my life were spent in southern West Virginia. Dad worked for the railroad for a dollar an hour, and we lived in a rambling old house covered with brick siding. We had a good life hunting groundhogs on summer Saturdays and fox squirrels and whitetail deer in the fall.

Down the river a few miles were the coal fields. Before the turn of the century, it was said that some Yankee fellers came down from north of the Mason-Dixon Line and offered the hillbilly farmers a deal they couldn't refuse. Landowners could keep their surface rights and continue farming just as always. All those city slickers wanted was a hypothetical thing called a "mineral right" to the subsurface. Selling out was easy; just sign your X on the dotted line.

For a decade or two, nothing happened except that the farmers got their "easy money" from the coal companies. Then one day, the company men showed up with steam shovels and drills and other tools of the trade and started in on the southern Appalachians. They even hired the locals to work the mines, which paid more than farming. And the hill people began to learn the meaning of the word "undermine."

Slag heaps developed and some of them still burn. The rivers ran black and the miners who worked the day shift seldom saw the sun they used to farm under. Then came the strip-miners, who gouged huge pits in the hillsides with bulldozers and decapitated whole mountains, dumping the "overburden" into the deep coulees and ravines that the mountain people called "hollers."

Old-timers were saddened to watch the land undergo a kind of "progress' they couldn't control, and to feel their lives changed for the worse. They're gone, and their history easily forgotten, though scars on the land remain for the centuries to heal.

For a few wild and wonderful years I roamed the world, enchanted by the lofty Alps and New Zealand's snowy ranges, by Fujiyama, Kilimanjaro, the giant Himalaya.

But for 30 years I've lived in Montana, mostly along the Rocky Mountain Front. A first glance at these mountains, unfurled from Glacier Park downrange to Rogers Pass, told me they were world-class wild lands, the best undeveloped country on earth. The foothills held the bear and eagle and the big game herds, and from those foothills, great windy prairies rolled eastward.

After years of climbing, riding, and hiking them, the mountains and valleys of the Front Range have become like brothers and sisters to me. Sun River, Castle Reef, Mount Wright and the Teton, Dupuyer Creek, Heart Butte and Feather Woman are not just lines and points on a map, but places known and cherished as old friends.

I've always feared the secret would slip out and more "outsiders' like me would come here and too many of us would spoil it. And now everybody's heard about Montana. If you're a landowner near mountains these days, you might find folks waving money in your face. Incentives to subdivide some areas already outweigh the economics of staying on the land and operating a ranch.

Along the Rocky Mountain Front, there are company men too - not coal companies, but big oil. Which brings us back to mineral rights.

The Lewis and Clark National Forest is writing an environmental impact statement for oil and gas leasing on all national forest lands along the 100-mile stretch of roadless Rocky Mountain Front. Most of this land has been leased for 10-year intervals off and on for a few decades.

Nothing much has happened yet, certainly nothing resembling the full-field development that's occurred in Alberta, Canada's, oil and gas industrial zone. Much of the Montana Front is being studied for leasing, and at the same time much of Montana's Front has been considered for wilderness designation. Roadless area reviews have given most of the area the highest possible qualifying marks. In 1992, all of Montana's congressional delegation - Republican Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and Democratic Rep. Pat Williams - earmarked most roadless portions of the Front for inclusion in the wilderness system and recommended Badger-Two Medicine for additional wilderness study. Bills that differed slightly passed both houses of Congress, but compromise failed, largely due to an unrelated Senate filibuster during the end of the session.

An even stronger wilderness bill was passed by the House in 1994, and similar legislation was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Baucus. However in the latest round, Sen. Burns introduced a different bill, one written by industry, which doomed the Montana wilderness debate to continue. Still, conservationists can now point out that when the Forest Service recommends extensive oil and gas leasing for the Rocky Mountain Front, that conflicts with the intent of Congress.

An oil and gas lease means selling a development right from the public's property (national forest and BLM lands) to private interests. With stipulations, a company is allowed to explore and fully develop an area on which it holds an occupancy lease. This can mean major roads and heavy traffic, pipelines and power lines, and long-term disruption in primitive places never before developed.

High Country News Classifieds