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The Planet
Drilling Proposal Targets Rocky Mountain Front

By Tom Valtin

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is the last place in the Lower 48 where grizzlies venture down out of the mountains onto the Great Plains.

“You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been face-to-face with a 1,000-pound grizzly and been able to watch him,” says Karl Rappold, a rancher from Dupuyer, Montana. “It gives you a rush just knowing you’re so close to a massive animal like that.”

Rappold, a third-generation cattleman, says his family’s business has always comfortably coexisted with the grizzlies. “To me, these big bears are just as important as the cattle herd. To see them grazing on the same hillside as the cattle is the greatest feeling in the world. One grizzly’s been here over 27 years and he’s never caused an ounce of problem. I’ve been up close to him, my cattle have been up close to him, and he never bothers anybody.”

But natural gas and oil companies have been sitting on leases along the Front for years, waiting for the political winds to blow their way. “There are leases that the holders just sit on, doing the minimum to keep them valid, waiting for the right political or market alignment,” says Bob Clark, a Sierra Club organizer in Missoula. “In this case they were waiting for the Bush administration to come along.”

This spring, the BLM initiated an environmental impact statement for new drilling permits on existing leases on public lands in the Blackleaf area, smack in the heart of Montana’s Front. This could open the door to a flurry of speculative drilling activity and development. BLM’s own estimates indicate that there are at best a couple days’ worth of natural gas and 15 minutes’ worth of oil to supply national demand that are even potentially recoverable along the Front.

Stretching more than 100 miles from Glacier National Park to near Helena, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front lords over a Great Plains virtually unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark. Except for wild bison, the full complement of native wildlife still inhabits the region. The Front is home to the second-largest elk herd in the U.S. and one of the nation’s biggest populations of bighorn sheep. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks ranks it in the top one percent of wildlife habitat in the continental U.S.

“It would be a shame to ruin some of the best wildlife habitat in the country for a few days’ worth of natural gas,” says Rappold. “I’d love to have some of the people who are writing this energy bill come up to this ranch so I could show them why this is so important to protect. I think it should be made a wilderness, so we don’t have to go through this with oil and gas companies every ten years.”

Rappold is a member of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, an organization of ranchers, hunters, anglers, hikers, and others. The Sierra Club is an active member. Chapter members have tabled with displays and alerts, and in May co-hosted a slideshow in Missoula the evening before a BLM open house. “Through old-fashioned grassroots organizing the chapter helped turn out more than 200 people for the open house,” says Clark. An article ran in The Missoulian the day after the event in which the reporter noted that he was unable to find a single person there who favored drilling the Front.

“The Sierra Club helped generate 50,000 e-mail comments to the BLM on the Blackleaf EIS,” says David Ellenberger, a Sierra Club rep in Bozeman. “The BLM was flooded with so many e-mail comments that their computer server crashed. And it’s not just hippie-dippy types speaking out. It’s a real belt-buckle-and-cowboy-hat campaign.”

“People up here cherish their property rights,” says Montanan and former Sierra Club president Jennifer Ferenstein. “Many of the roads and pipelines would cut across private property. Once people realize what’s at stake, there’s overwhelming sentiment not to develop the Front.”

The Canadian side of the border has already been heavily developed, with roads, pipelines, natural gas flares, and incredible noise, driving out the elk herds and destroying the livelihoods of hunters, guides, and outfitters. “It’s exactly what we don’t want to happen in Montana,” says Ferenstein.

The BLM’s Draft EIS is open for public comment until February 2005. Tell the BLM that the benefits of preserving this spectacular undeveloped natural area far outweigh the costs of recovering a miniscule amount of oil and gas. Ask the BLM to include and consider a “No Drilling” alternative in preparing the EIS for the Blackleaf area.

Write to: Blackleaf Project EIS Team Lead, BLM Lewistown Field Office: P.O. Box 1160, Lewistown, MT 59457. Or send an email.

Send a copy of your comments to: Senator Max Baucus, 511 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; and Senator Conrad Burns, 187 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510.

Learn more about the Blackleaf EIS and the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front.

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