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

Augusta, Montana

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!"

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