Another Perspective

On the Edge Over the Front

There is a majestic place where even the staunchest conservative will become an enviro wacko to keep the natural gassers out.

By 11.5.03

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If Rush can admit to a drug addiction, then by God, I'll own up to my closet skeleton: I want to be a left-wing, loony, wacko environmentalist writer!

It is with steel determination that I resist the temptation, a keystroke by keystroke battle. Only moments ago I refrained from sending to The American Spectator an article that was nothing less than a glorious, rhapsodic tribute to the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, packed with elevating spiritual poetry and venom-dripping diatribes against the big business earth-trashing creeps who would destroy natural beauty for a few bucks worth of natural gas. Sherlock's seven percent solution could not have offered more intoxication than the organic hormonal surge of self-righteousness I experienced in writing about Majestic Mother Earth. A party mix of lidocaine and psychedelic mushrooms could not have conjured more enticing visions than I had of smiling, waif-like, patouli-drenched earth-hippie chicks lining up to thank me in their libertine earth-hippie chick ways for my glorious words.

But I stepped back from the brink.

I did not email the article to The American Spectator. I did not click SEND. I resisted. I'm proud to say I resisted even without the threat of criminal investigation to prompt me to refrain.

That I did not submit my writings to the public does not make Montana's Rocky Mountain Front any less glorious. It's still one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the lower 48. Here the western edge of the northern plains meets the young eastern overthrust of an active tectonic plate. It's a stark, jumbly kaleidoscope of ecosystems. The Front stretches roughly 200 miles from Helena north to Glacier National Park and the Canadian border, then a few more hundred on up to Jasper. The Blackfeet called this stretch The Backbone of the World. Walk over it and you too would fear our planet would fall apart without it.

It's something else.

The only time I've wept tears of awe was when I climbed a high ridge on the Front. Thousands of miles of rugged mountains at my back, tens of thousands of miles of rolling plains 4,000 feet below the cliff.. Beautiful is too easy a word, and ultimately the wrong word. It's gut-wrenchingly awesome! The might of The Lord wrought relentlessly. It's not candy for the eyes but nourishment for the soul. This is precisely where Bud Guthrie, Jr. was raised and lived and wrote the novel The Big Sky, now Montana's unofficial nickname.

Presently, efforts are being made to install natural gas well sites, pipelines and "sweetening plants" along the Front. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then click right now on Save the Front, easily worth 3,000 words of my own extended indignant environmentalist prose. This natural gas refining plant is located on the Canadian side of the Front. (Call me biased, but our side of the Rockies is even more dramatic.)

The Front is parceled out between Glacier National Park, Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the Blackfeet Reservation, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Nature Conservancy, counties, sprawling Hutterite communes, and a few private owners. (David Letterman owns a few thousand acres here, and was recently greeted by a huge bear in his cabin's kitchen. Goooood morning!)

Energy development on the Front is effectively blocked in all areas except those small parcels owned by the BLM. There'd be no fear of development on BLM land, either, had not the BLM sold off natural gas leases years ago. Only now, perhaps because of higher gas prices, are the holders of those leases seeking to drill.

Naturally, the alarms are ringing not only in the wacko environmentalist world but in the real world, too. I lived in one of the Front's largest communities, Choteau (pop. 1600), and its conservative Republican ranchers and gray-haired Lutherans are not happy about the prospect of looking out on the nearby Rockies to see dozens of 80 foot drilling towers with blinking lights, a maze of roads scratched through the forests, a web of pipelines and huge service roads. Not at all happy. (Bill Croke, one of The American Spectator's regular contributors, also lived in Choteau and has written many articles on the region).

But of course it's the environmentalists who are foaming at the mouth with blame for President Bush and his administration's directive to the BLM to place at its top priority the development of energy resources. The ferocity of these public attacks, often from otherwise mild-mannered people I've come to know after living in the area for ten years, reminds me I a mere piker when it comes to writing environmentalist diatribes.

The truth is, Bush has probably never heard of the Front. Though he may have heard of Montana and its ultra safe three electoral votes. As I recall, in 2000 his plane landed and taxied slowly while he gave a short speech at the Billings Airport.

SPARING YOU THE LABYRINTHIAN bureaucratic details, here's the essence of the struggle for control of the Front's natural gas.

For starters, even if the most generous estimates of resources are accurate, the Front might provide enough natural gas to supply the country, for a day, maybe two. All of the big energy companies sold their leases years ago, both because there was no profit in development and because of fear of negative public reaction for environmental damage. The real natural gas action is south in Wyoming's Powder River Basin and north in Canada.

The present leases are held by an eccentric collection of very small time players (called "bottom feeders" in the industry) whose motives are foggy. Exploration is expensive, success is not guaranteed, the potential rewards are minimal, The highly visible damage to the environment (from exploration alone) will last at least a lifetime.

These mineral rights leases can be traded for other federal leases and royalty rights. The government can make such trades highly profitable for individual holders. Governor Jeb Bush orchestrated such federal trades recently in Florida. Perhaps that option is the real reason for recent efforts by the Front's leaseholders.

In the case of the Front, the BLM legally can do little to actively develop energy resources. What it can choose to do is to not slow or stop present leaseholders from developing.

Montana's lone Republican Senator, Conrad Burns, is Chairman of the Interior Appropriations Committee that can slow the process of development. His actions can send a clear message to both the leaseholders and the BLM that bartering away present leases is better than developing. Burns can withhold or decrease moneys for necessary studies, or he can facilitate funds to buy back the leases. But Burns is a politician who is not so much careful as he is slow. To date he's sided with the ten or so leaseholders, but his wet thumb in the wind is telling him to lean with the environmentalists and the solid majority of Montanans who don't want a 250 mile stretch of the Rockies defaced for a few dozen temporary jobs. At this juncture, Senator Burns is the key figure.

That's how it stands.

I am reminded that R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.., wrote recently and inspiringly in these pages of locating America's sacred places. If the Rocky Mountain Front is not such a place, then, sorry, there is no God.

And if Senator Burns and the BLM fail to prevent natural gas mining along the Front, then, sorry, this conservative will succumb to the drug of wacko environmentalist activism.

I might even try a seven percent solution of patouli oil.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.