If Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were governor of Montana, would the Rocky Mountain Front get highest-level protection from future oil and gas development?


You bet it would.


This May President Bush announced that he intended to buy back more than $200 million worth of oil and gas leases off the Florida coast and in the Everglades. It's an election year, and the President's move to "save the glades" no doubt helped his brother's campaign for re-election. Protecting these unique areas was something people in Florida had enthusiastically backed.


In describing why the leases would be bought up, Interior Secretary Gale Norton reasoned that the area in the Everglades has negligible energy reserves, provides critical wildlife habitat and has powerful local advocates for its preservation. These qualities perfectly describe Montana's Rocky Mountain Front. But instead of suggesting a similar offer for the Front, the administration seems willing to undo hard-won conservation measures.


Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman shocked Montanans last March by not ruling out gas development on the Front, the 100-mile strip of wild land in northwestern Montana where the Great Plains slam up against the east front of the Rockies. "With the technology we have today we can't preclude any options," Veneman said.


Was this statement a hint that the Bush administration might try to overturn a 1997 decision to keep parts of the Lewis and Clark National Forest on the Front free from new leasing? That decision, strongly supported by the public, was appealed by industry but upheld all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.


But the energy industry continues to push, and President Bush and vice president Dick Cheney appear to have targeted the Front for natural gas development. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Montana Thrust Belt, which takes in much of the western third of Montana, including Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, might hold 1.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.


That sounds like a lot, until you realize that this is only enough to supply current United States demand for three or four weeks.


Nevertheless, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana says the Front contains "vast amounts" of natural gas and that drilling "should at least be considered." And Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., told the


Washington Post that "everything ought to be under consideration."


GOP Senate candidate Mike Taylor also suggests that it's acceptable to exploit the Front for gas. On the other hand, Democrat Sen. Max Baucus of Montana has repeatedly supported protecting this splendid wild place from industrial development and has offered legislation encouraging protection.


Other supporters emerged after the U.S. House last year approved a national energy bill that would give away $33 billion in tax breaks to energy corporations, open Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and encourage extensive new oil and gas leasing on public lands, including the Front. Some provisions of that bill were so environmentally damaging that Rep. Nick Rahall, D-Wyo., wrote energy committee chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that "... in the view of the majority of the House Democratic Caucus, any final 'deal' on H.R. 4 containing (those provisions) is no deal, but rather, would be subjected to ridicule and derision."


Hunting and fishing organizations, including the National Rifle Association, also got involved. They joined with wildlife professionals and conservation groups in opposing the egregious provisions in the House bill that would threaten wild ecosystems like the Front by virtually mandating their development.


In April, the Senate passed its own energy bill, somewhat better than the House version. But it still encouraged continued dependence on fossil fuels and their increased extraction from national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands. House and Senate conferees are now working to piece together a compromise energy bill for President Bush to sign.


Judging from the president's executive order last spring, which told federal agencies to speed up permitting and development of public lands, those who love the Rocky Mountain Front had better stay informed about this pending energy bill. If the House provisions prevail, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey could be given authority to reverse the Lewis and Clark Forest decision banning new leases on the Front. It's likely the former industry lobbyist would then opt to road and drill.


Those of us who love this area of wild land and wildlife want to strengthen, not weaken, protection for the Front. Just like Florida's Everglades "- in fact, exactly like Florida's Everglades "- Montana's Rocky Mountain Front is a national treasure.

Gene Sentz is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a teacher in Chorteau, Montana, and a founder of Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front.