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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ban On More Montana Drilling

Air Date: Week of

A recent U.S. Forest Service decision rules out new wilderness areas leases along the Rocky Mountain front in Montana. That is, for the next ten years. Bob Reha of High Plains News Service reports.


KNOY: The US Forest Service has decided to prohibit any new oil and gas leases near wilderness areas along the Rocky Mountain front in Montana. The ban will last for at least 10 years. Bob Reha of the High Plains News Service has our report.

(Footfalls on gravel)

SENSE: You can see your mountain from here, right behind those trees right there.

REHA: James Sense's dark eyes light up behind his horn-rimmed glasses as he walks across the playground at the elementary school in Shota, Montana. Sense's lived and taught fourth grade here for over 20 years.

SENSE: You can see through the trees right over there, as far north as you can see --

REHA: Shota is on Montana's Rocky Mountain front where the plains and the mountains meet. The front is broad and majestic, a special place for people like author A.B. Guthrie and painter Charlie Russell, and Mr. Sense, who has fought for 20 years to keep it as it is.

SENSE: I feel very similarly to the Blackfeet people and the other tribal people, that for me these mountains are sacred. And I guess they represent a manifestation of Heaven on Earth to me. And that's why they're most important.

REHA: So Mr. Sense is relieved by the Forest Service's decision not to sell any new oil and gas leases along the front for at least the next 10 years. The somewhat unexpected move is the latest development in a 20-year battle over how Federal land in the area should be used. The decision will help threaten species like the grizzly bear, which roamed the front and the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness. However, the announcement angered oil industry officials who believe huge reserves of oil and gas lie beneath the front. They say examples of their ability to drill with minimal impact in similar areas in Wyoming and Colorado were ignored, and they believe the decision will make it infeasible for companies to develop leases they already hold in the area. Gail Abercrombie, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, says those investments can't just be abandoned.

ABERCROMBIE: People have made investments in getting those leases. There are rentals paid. There were lease bonuses paid. Some of those folks that have those leases may be interested in appealing this because of the impact on their current leases that they have spent some monies on.

REHA: The industry had expected the Forest Service to at least allow leasing in 3 small areas in a strip of land 70 miles along and a mile wide. But Lewis and Clark Forest supervisor Gloria Flora says an avalanche of public protest from across the country helped persuade her to toughen her stand. She recalled the words of Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the Forest Service, in announcing her decision.

FLORA: We were directed by Gifford Pinchot that where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.

REHA: Oil companies have 45 days to challenge the decision. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Reha reporting.



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