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Boom and Gloom

Montana's Blackfeet Nation recently signed the largest oil exploration deal in the tribe's history. Is it a vital step to saving the reservation, or an agreement destined for disaster?

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"I'm just saying, if you have a house, you have a living room, you have a dining room, you have a bathroom, you have a bedroom. You don't go to the bathroom in your dining room," says Burk, a core member of the FRMF and continued advocate for conservation. "You have certain areas that are too pristine, of too much national significance or too much aesthetic, emotional significance that those values far outweigh the returns that you might get even if there was gold under it. I ask people this: Would you take Glacier Park and doze it flat because there's gold under it?"

Choteau's battle with development began in 1977, when the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to lease all land on the Front within the Lewis and Clark National Forest to oil and gas companies. Geologists all but guaranteed that the pristine corridor offered a rich source of fossil fuels, and many locals were sold on the plan, convinced it would mean future growth and sustainability for the community.

Others, however, found the Forest Service's announcement distasteful. Choteau resident Gene Sentz, a retired teacher and former Forest Service employee, remembers calling together the first meeting of FRMF, a group of 15 or 20 locals who gathered over beers in late 1977 to discuss how to oppose the leasing plan. The movement steadily gained momentum and by the following spring they were openly protesting the Forest Service's actions and demanding the agency stop.

"We weren't against a little bit of oil and gas development, but by gosh what they were doing was committing the whole east front of the national forest outside the Bob Marshall to oil companies...for a 10-year lease," Sentz says. "We had a meeting in the spring, March of '78, down in the pavilion and about 250 showed up just by word of mouth. We had the Forest Service there and after that they backed up and agreed to do an EIS [environmental impact statement]. So we kinda won the first round there."

The tall, distinctive peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front, including Ear Mountain, on the left, prompted locals to fight for 30 years against nearby oil and gas development. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • The tall, distinctive peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front, including Ear Mountain, on the left, prompted locals to fight for 30 years against nearby oil and gas development.

The FRMF managed to delay the Forest Service's plans through much of the '80s, but by 1990 the issue had come up once more. Oil and gas companies were pressing the Forest Service hard to complete an EIS. The fight may have dragged on indefinitely—or with disastrous results—had Gloria Flora not been named forest supervisor on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in 1995. By then most people across the nation knew of the FRMF's bitter 20-year battle, and Flora entered the position with an immediate sense of skepticism based on the public outcry.

"Hearing what people felt about this landscape, it became abundantly clear to me that this was an incredible treasure," Flora says. "I started to explore: What could I do, what was I responsible for doing, and what were the people who owned this land asking me to do? I was responsible for being responsive to industry, I had a mandate to ensure the people of the United States had energy as well as water, so it was not just, 'Well hey, this is special, go away.' And industry was extremely interested in getting in there, so it was a very interesting dilemma I found myself in."

The call was Flora's to make, and her final decision proved an unpopular one with the oil industry: In 1997, she announced a moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing on the Rocky Mountain Front. She'd spent a year mapping wildlife areas and sensitive habitats, layering those maps to get a sense of the stipulations the Forest Service would have to place on surface occupancy and other aspects of drilling.

"It goes without saying the ecological values along the Rocky Mountain Front are almost unparalleled, and it's been called the Serengeti of the West or of the United States," says Flora, who now runs a Helena-based nonprofit specializing in sustainability of public lands. "It has tremendous wildlife populations and wildlife values as habitat, not only for every large charismatic mega-fauna but also a host of threatened and endangered species—grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx—you name it, they're all there. It provides nesting habitat for one-third of the birds in the state of Montana...The migration corridor for golden eagles is right along the spine of the Rocky Mountain Front, and there's thousands and thousands of them literally."

Her moratorium remained in effect—a protective though temporary measure—until 2006, when Sen. Max Baucus carried a permanent ban on development along the Front through Congress. Those with the FRMF still consider Flora the pivotal voice in preserving the area.

"To me, it was like the start of the civil rights movement in terms of this environmental battle," Burk says. "It was the Parks on the bus, it was the massacre of Martin Luther King, it was the march across Pettus Bridge in southern Alabama. It was the final rallying cry that gave all of us who believed in this Rocky Mountain Front the impetus to say somebody, somebody else cares about the significance of this place."

But Flora insists her decision was partly prompted by the incredibly convincing arguments made by local residents. Very few wanted to see development, she says, even if it meant fleeting jobs and fast cash. The Choteau community recognized an addiction to oil and, in refusing to make irreversible sacrifices, became one of the country's greatest success stories in fighting the push for more development. It's a story, Burk says, many would like to see repeated in Montana.

Internationally renowned activist and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke makes no efforts to sugar coat her low opinion of oil and gas development. She's a former member of Greenpeace and has spent the past two and a half decades stressing the importance of preserving native landscapes and plugging renewable sources of energy like wind farms and solar panels. On her home reservation in northern Minnesota, LaDuke practices what she preaches by powering her home with those same renewables.

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