The Rocky Mountain Front blues
Nine years ago this May, my wife, Holly, and I bought an old house in Augusta, aiming to live and raise our children in a landscape and a culture -- the two are inseparable -- that we respect. About 20 miles west of town, the fierce wall of geology known as the Rocky Mountain Front leaps from the wide grassy plain, the backdrop to every day, whether good or bad. The Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Complex -- protecting 1.5 million acres of mountains, well-grassed valleys and forest -- beckons at the end of teeth-cracking washboard gravel roads.
Tiny Augusta, with fewer than 300 residents, is the hub for the big ranches around it, with a grocery store, a gas station and four bars. Elk Creek runs through our town (and sometimes floods it), connecting us to the wildness of the mountains from which it is born; in mid-June last year, two adolescent grizzly bears were seen cavorting in a neighbor's backyard. Outfitting -- autumn hunting and summer pack trips into the wilderness -- is also part of the town's economy, and its image. It's a conservative, community-oriented town, where the rough edges and the older values of the West still hold: self-reliance, tolerance for eccentricity, the willingness to pitch in to help a neighbor in need. Augusta has been very good to us and to our children.
One cold night in March 2012, I was driving my son and daughter home from Little Guy Wrestling practice in Choteau, another ranch and farming town whose 1,700 residents make it the largest settlement along the 200-mile-long Front. The late winter sky blazed with stars and the snow in the coulees glowed like bleached bones in the moonlight. To the west, we could see the bulk of Ear Mountain (made famous in A.B. Guthrie's classic novel, The Big Sky), its outline a black arc against a sky not yet completely dark. I thought, not for the first time: The Front is a landscape of wind and space that I love more than any other.
But that night, for the first time in the years we've made that drive, there were oil-drilling rigs out there on the plain, lit up like Christmas trees, surrounded by a wash of halogen lights, a shaky set of bright headlights bucking down an access road. We'd seen the big pickups with Colorado plates at the ExxonMobil station in Choteau, noticed the piles of surveying stakes outside the Stage Stop Inn, overheard the talk of boom, lease fortunes and skyrocketing rents. We knew that modern energy development, or at least exploration, had arrived. But it wasn't until we saw those glaring rigs lighting the night that we really understood what it meant.
The oil and gas industry has sought riches for more than a hundred years around here. The Lewis Overthrust, running from Alberta southeast into Montana, forming the Front, is such a classic visible example of the earth's shiftings and buryings that it has inspired generations of hydrocarbon seekers and visionaries. But while the famously jumbled geology -- the Disturbed Belt, some call it -- has promised much, with a few exceptions (a well west of Choteau at Blackleaf Canyon produced around 7 billion cubic feet of natural gas before being capped in the late 1980s) the result has been lots of dry and marginal holes. The first wells were drilled in the early 1900s near natural petroleum seeps in an area that's now part of Glacier National Park, on the Front's northern edge. Early- to mid-20th century oil and gas fields abound from east of ultra-tiny Dupuyer all the way to the Canadian border above the Sweetgrass Hills.
Hard-fought political battles from the 1940s to the '70s created our huge wilderness complex, and only after those battles were settled did the leasing of unprotected land become controversial. In recent decades, even during the drilling-intoxicated George W. Bush presidency, the trend along the Front seemed to veer again toward protection. In 2006, conservationists and their government allies completed a near-total buyout of the existing energy leases along the Front, and federal minerals up and down the mountain edge were withdrawn from further leasing (despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth from many locals). More recently, a surprising coalition ranging from outfitters and sportsmen to ranchers and environmentalists has negotiated the terms of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which -- if Congress ever passes it -- would basically keep federal public lands here the way they are now, with limited motorized access, a plan for controlling noxious weeds and continuing livestock grazing, along with a moderate expansion of wilderness designation for 67,000 acres of national forest. The Heritage Act has broad support from across Montana, including many locals. (Disclaimer: I'm one of them.) At a recent public meeting in Choteau with Montana's new Republican Congressman Steve Daines, 69 people signed on the "pro" Heritage Act sheet, while 16 opposed it. But such numbers, and even such meetings, can be deceptive.
In truth, most people here -- at least the vocal ones -- don't want the Front to remain in its relatively pristine condition. Bumper stickers common in Choteau say it clearly: "Save the Front. Drill it!"
The reasons are economic, at least on the surface. Tangible arguments for development, energy or otherwise, include the Augusta school, the stately old brick building our son and daughter attend. It's a good school, but it's threatened by declining enrollment and slashed budgets. My friend, Russ Bean, who grew up on the Bean Ranch, where the Dearborn River emerges from the mountain wall, is one of many who worry that the school could close. His family's ranch dates back to the 1800s and he was the school superintendent for seven years; his wife, Terri, taught my son and daughter in first and second grade, in a class of seven or eight children. In the "all able hands on deck" way of a small community, Russ and I have worked together on the volunteer ambulance, and on other projects. He is a quietly outspoken advocate of energy development and more, not less, motorized access to the Front.
As Russ puts it, "If we had some good, high-paying jobs here without energy development, I'd say maybe we don't need it here. But we don't have those jobs. There is no economy here. The ranching lifestyle is leaving us, because nobody new can afford to ranch; rich people have come in and pushed up the price of land to where it is out of reach." He says he values the environment, but the lack of revenue is a more serious problem than any hypothetical damage from energy development. "If this (development) is done right, it can put more money into the pockets of people who work for a living, it brings people to our community, and it can keep our school open. And if the school closes, we have no community." Russ' sentiments are echoed by our current legislator, Christy Clark of Choteau (whose husband and eldest son coached my kids' wrestling team, and whose family has been here for five generations), a local newspaper editor, and by many landowners and businesspeople, from Rogers Pass on the Front's southern edge to the Canadian border.
I don't know what we'd do if the Augusta school closes. But I like this place just the way it is. I admit that I once thought everybody did. Some people will say that because I make my living as a writer, I can afford to dismiss the opportunities that energy development would bring. But as they also say of ranching, outfitting and guiding here, writing "ain't much of a living, but it's a pretty good life," as long as you love where you live. And because I know that an energy boom will forever change this place I love and have chosen for raising my family, I have reported on the consequences of energy development across the West. From New Mexico to Wyoming, I've tried to describe, as objectively as I could, the benefits, conflicts and trade-offs I've witnessed. Because I usually write for conservation and outdoor magazines, I've often concentrated on the impact of energy development on wildlife, including mule deer, elk, antelope and sage grouse. Sometimes it's the near-destruction of parts of revered and unique landscapes like Colorado's Roan Plateau or Wyoming's Red Desert or the pollution of watersheds like the Tongue River in Wyoming and Montana. The impacts are indisputable.
Aldo Leopold said it best: "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." My own "ecological education" comes mostly from being a serious hunter and fisherman and biophile, or -- as my friends called me in our youth -- a "nature freak." I have sought out the places where what fascinates me the most is most intact. But as anybody who loves the rural West knows, that fascination is not usually shared, at least not in the same way, by all who spend their lives there. Most of my friends and neighbors, who welcomed my family to this town, don't "live alone in a world of wounds" when they're working on or visiting the local ranches and farms. They see nothing wrong with having more economic opportunities, and if that means more roads, more people, more industry, so much the better. They certainly do not celebrate the loss of human population and the resurgence of the grizzly, the wolf or the sandhill crane. Instead, they celebrate the economically vibrant (and ecologically destructive) past years of settlement and boom.
I write this essay from a back room in an old insurance office that closed in the 1970s. Next door was the movie theater. Across the street was the office of the Augusta News, last published in the 1950s. The fact that most of the rest of the world is now replete with movie theaters and insurance offices, that across the planet the crowded vibrancy of commerce and human endeavor has reached the level of a shriek, does not change the view that a loss of human population here represents decline.
Many would welcome an energy boom, and on the Blackfeet Reservation, whose border touches Glacier National Park, they have already done so, with mixed results. While some tribal members were appalled at the idea of industrializing landscapes near sacred sites, others hoped that leasing land for energy development would bring more cash and jobs to a reservation that has 69 percent unemployment and a poverty rate conservatively put at 39 percent. As I write this, billionaire Philip Anschutz's Exploration Corporation, which held about 600,000 acres of leases on the Blackfeet Reservation, has announced plans to abandon its efforts there for now, after drilling 14 exploratory wells. South of the reservation, Fairways Exploration and Production (motto: "High Impact Exploration is Fairways' Business!") has recently drilled two exploratory wells on the spectacular Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch, a 6,300-acre property owned by the Boone and Crockett Club, and dedicated to wildlife research, hunting and conservation. New drilling is occurring near Augusta, and exploration, especially for natural gas, is unabated.
Although federal lands are not open for leasing in the narrow six-mile band where the mountains meet the prairies, leasing of state, private and reservation ground -- which together comprise the vast majority of the Front east of the mountains -- has been on fire. In the four counties that stretch from the Canadian border to Roger's Pass, the drillers have already leased most state lands -- well over a quarter of a million acres, along with the hundreds of thousands of acres on the reservation and the expanses of the private land that also hold some of the world's richest wildlife habitat and native grasslands.
The Front's energy resources are nowhere as reliable and rich as the Bakken play in the Williston Basin in eastern Montana and North Dakota. The Williston's oil-producing layer is 20 to 80 feet thick, whereas the layer along the Front is around five feet thick. So the payout here would be lower than in the Bakken, and the drillers groping around the Front have to deal with very challenging geology. With natural gas prices at historic lows, because the new technologies opening shale reserves across the U.S. have created an unprecedented glut, many drilling projects are on hold. But a complex new worldwide market is taking shape. Our nation's largest export terminal for liquefied natural gas (LNG) is being built in Louisiana, a $10 billion project, to ship to Korea, Japan and Spain, where the selling price is much higher than here. Federal regulators have approved another new LNG port on the Texas coast, and are considering proposals for many more, including one in Coos Bay, Ore., to export to Asian markets, using the Pacific Connector Pipeline to bring gas from the Rocky Mountains and other producing regions. There is a nationwide rush to retrofit or convert coal-fired power plants to burn the cleaner, much cheaper natural gas. The rumblings of a new U.S. transportation model can also be heard, as cars are fitted with engines that burn compressed natural gas, and trucks convert to LNG. The hue and cry of "natural gas" is on every investor's lips.
The question as to when the price of the natural gas will rebound again, triggering a new rush of drilling, has not yet been answered, but soon will be. Add new research showing that the productivity of many recent gas wells declines at an unexpectedly fast rate, and you're left with a kind of cliffhanger, with only one guarantee: Wherever natural gas and oil resources have not been declared off-limits, they will be developed eventually.
A single successful oil or gas well can generate millions of dollars for the local economy along the Front, along with enormous company profits, so they will keep trying.
Since I began reporting on energy issues, the greatest change I have witnessed has come in our attitudes, across the U.S. Generally, the pendulum has swung away from conservation, and toward an acceptance of trade-offs in developing domestic energy resources. There has been no widespread rebellion against oil and gas, despite both the obvious and subtle environmental impacts, including climate change. When it was widely trumpeted in 2013 that the North Dakota Bakken oilfields could contain as many as 7.4 billion barrels of oil, more than anyone had imagined, no one noted that this would still only be enough to fuel the U.S. for 350 days. And that math, of course, doesn't include the fact that most of the oil will be sold on the global market. When it was reported that the same Bakken oilfields were burning off, into the atmosphere, enough natural gas every day to heat a half-million homes, simply because it wasn't "economical" to build a new pipeline, people just shrugged and went about their business.
Many would say that the U.S. has become a more pragmatic nation since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I would say that we have lowered our expectations, abandoned our notions of efficiency and innovation, and instead accepted a model of short-term pillage and squander, not just of the energy resources with which we were blessed, but also of the landscapes that contain them. This is not an abstraction to me. I've seen it, and it is real.
As I began drafting this essay last summer, a sow grizzly killed 70 sheep in one hell-raising night east of a small town named Conrad, a long way from the mountains. She and her cub were on the move, wandering the ancestral traces on the grasslands.
A week later, my son and I set out to ride borrowed horses to White River Pass in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, to help outfitter friends shovel a path through the snow so they could bring a pack string to their camp. The drive to the trailhead was 30 miles, almost all of it gravel and washboard. We passed only four or five ranch houses between Augusta and the beginning of Forest Service land, all of them lost in a vastness of emerald prairie grass, bright yellow balsam root, purple irises in the lower, wetter ground. Antelope were everywhere, their fawns no bigger than border collies, running wild circles around their mothers. There were elk out on the prairies. (Local wisdom says that the growing number of wolves has made it impossible for the elk to calve in the backcountry public lands.)
The whole of the drive, until the mountains, was overshadowed by the strange tower of Haystack Butte, which has been a landmark for human beings here long before maps were drawn in charcoal and ochre on a scrap of buffalo or antelope hide. Haystack Butte is mostly state land, all of it leased for energy exploration. The magnificent private lands around it? They're also leased.
In a world of 7.5 billion souls and counting, in a nation that expects to add 100 million people in the next 30 years or so, all of them expecting to be warmed and fed and powered, we nature freaks, and those who associate solitude with freedom, face hard times ahead. The oil and gas may or may not lie beneath the prairies here. It may not even matter. The relentless eagerness with which so many of us, who live in this land and know it best, have embraced the quest to find the fossil fuels tells the truest, saddest story of our future.
Hal Herring is a freelance journalist and book author based in Augusta, Montana; his previous HCN stories have focused on wolves, bison, grizzlies, predator politics, whitebark pinecone picking, and chronic wasting disease in elk, among other topics.