The Rocky Mountain Front blues

  • The Blackfeet Reservation has welcomed oil and gas exploration despite the concerns of some tribal members.

    Tony Bynum
  • "I don't look forward to having another Williston (the hub for North Dakota's Bakken oil rush)," says Dan Greer, a contractor who supplies water tanks on drill sites near Heart Butte, Montana, "but it's nice having the work."

    Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
  • Mike Briggs, ranch manager at the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch along the Rocky Mountain Front, walks by the capped wellhead left after an oil exploration company drilled on the ranch last fall looking for an economically feasible amount of oil.

    Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
  • A standing-room-only crowd listens to state and county officials during a meeting in Choteau regarding the effects of energy development in the area.

    Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
  • A solitary ranch near Augusta, Montana.

    USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

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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.

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