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Know the West

All is not quiet on the Front

  Though oil and gas developers have long had their eyes on the vast reserves that geologists say lie beneath Montana's rugged Rocky Mountain Front, environmental concerns have held most of them at bay. Now, a more immediate threat looms over the area.

Wyoming businessman Mark Alldredge has filed 104 mining claims over 3.4 square miles of land between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Montana's Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area. Alldredge won't say what he's looking for, but federal officials believe it may be diamonds. Miners discovered industrial-grade diamonds at a similar site near Hinton, Alberta, in Canada.

A mine would disrupt a major elk migratory route, environmentalists warn, and drive endangered grizzly bears from the area. But these concerns may play second fiddle to the 1872 Mining Law: Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., who has unsuccessfully pushed to protect the area from development in a series of wilderness bills, says, "The brutal fact is that if the developer can demonstrate any mineral discovery, the land becomes his."

* Mark Matthews