The Bush administration raised the ire of local and national environmental groups last week—while turning up the heat on Montana’s sole Democratic representative to Congress—by announcing its intention to open the Lewis and Clark National Forest to oil and gas drilling.
A presidential task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney published the plan to exploit land along the Rocky Mountain Front as part of the new administration’s energy policy. The report conflicts with Sen. Max Baucus’ position on the issue, which he detailed in a March 21 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton: “I am writing to urge you and the Administration to continue the moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Rocky Mountain Front,” he wrote. “There is overwhelming public support in my state for protecting the Front. … This area is of utmost importance to Montana sportsmen, outfitters and recreationists. Opening the Front to oil and gas exploration could result in irreversible impacts to this beautiful yet fragile area that Montanans care deeply about.”
But Baucus’ letter also expresses sympathy for Bush’s energy plan, suggesting that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is a more suitable spot for resource extraction than Montana. Baucus was likely aware when he wrote Norton that the new administration’s chances of getting Congressional approval to drill the North Slope have dwindled from slim to next to nothing, and that Cheney’s report may be a move to get the divided Senate to choose from the lesser of two evils. In any scenario, the report is indicative of some early wrangling over Baucus’ seat in the Senate, which pundits have identified as a key in the 2002 congressional races.
Meanwhile, the 1.8 million acres of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, which includes some 380,000 acres of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, could be redesignated by the Bush administration for drilling without coming up before Congress. All it would take, according to Cheney’s task force, is repealing administrative protections that former controversial Lewis and Clark National Forest manager Gloria Flora spearheaded during the Clinton years. Such a change could be made by Norton.
The rub, according to Jeff Juel of the Missoula-based Ecology Center, is that Flora’s moves to preserve the Front included an extensive public commentary period, one that provided the “overwhelming public support” Baucus cited in his letter. “It’s a pretty big irony, really,” says Juel. “The comments on this issue were divided among outside oil interests that wanted to keep [the Front] open to drilling, and Montana citizens, who said ‘No this should not happen.’ Now Bush is saying the federal government is the outside interest and that the oil companies represent local control.”