If it's good for Florida, it's good for Montana and the West, too

  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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.