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Critics Fear Energy Plan Will Tame a Wild Land

November 09, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

CHOTEAU, Mont. — From behind her sunglasses, Gloria Flora's dark blue eyes were trained on the unfolding vastness thousands of feet beneath her. She paid little attention as the single-engine plane pitched and bucked in high winds above the limestone escarpments of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front.

Like the little plane, Flora was at full throttle, calling on all her charm and powers of persuasion to make a case to the state's Democratic candidate for governor for keeping oil and gas exploration out of the majestic landscape below.

"It's not comfy here. It doesn't have amenities. It's not easy to get to," she said, pointing to the wide-hipped buttes and mesas, affection filling her voice. "There's no cell phone service and the wind blows like hell. It's only the very hardy and the very lucky who live here."

A 140-mile stretch of largely unbroken country, tracing the Rockies from Helena north to the Canadian border, the front is part of the largest complex of U.S. wild lands outside Alaska.

Flora was doing what she does best: extolling the character of a place she put on the national political map by convincing the Clinton administration to make it off-limits to oil and gas exploration.

At that time, she was the U.S. Forest Service supervisor of the surrounding Lewis and Clark National Forest. Today, she's citizen Flora -- committed as ever, despite an angry parting with the Forest Service and a crippling car accident.

Her flaring cheekbones, waist-length hair and throaty voice belie a competitive drive that made her a force to reckon with during 22 years in the male-dominated Forest Service.

Yet, for all her talents, Flora may be on the brink of losing her battle to save a region that, as much as any, resembles the West that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark saw when they came through here 200 years ago.

At least three companies holding leases that predate Flora's decision are preparing to drill for natural gas deep inside the protected area, encouraged by rising gas prices, increasing demand and pending energy legislation that would give oil and gas companies tax breaks and other incentives that take some of the financial risk out of exploring.

With the Bush administration making a determined push to open wild lands to energy exploration, dormant leases on 400,000 acres of the front could spring to life. Petroleum engineers acknowledge that the extent of recoverable gas along the front is not known.

"Granted, there may only be a few days' supply of gas," said Gail Abercrombie, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Assn. "If we were to take all the wheat Montana produces, it doesn't come close to supplying the nation's needs. Does that mean we just quit farming wheat?"

Exploration by itself would not mar the landscape permanently. Full field production, on the other hand, could dramatically alter the complexion of the countryside, with drill pads, roads, pipelines, processing plants, traffic and people.

Flora has seen the effects just across the border in Canada, where oil and gas and related industrial development along the base of the Rockies in western Alberta have displaced elk and mountain sheep and greatly diminished the grizzly bear population.

Along the front on the U.S. side, virtually all of the animal species observed by Lewis and Clark remain. This is the only place in the lower 48 states where grizzlies still come down out of their mountain dens every spring and roam the plains, gorging on chokecherries and occasionally picking off a stray sheep or calf.

Yet its wildness isn't the front's only allure.

"It's a visceral reaction, really," said Bob Decker, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Assn.

"The continent drops off into ranches and a big sky," Decker said. "Drainages roll on for miles into public lands that are undisturbed. The waterways are undammed. The communities are small. There's a sense of openness. Things are clean and possible; there's room to move and you can talk to people. This is a place where every superlative is justified."

Stoney Burk is a typical example of the passions people hold for this land. Burk is an attorney in Choteau, calls himself a conservative, voted for President Bush and pledges, with his voice rising: "I will crawl 200 miles on my belly to save this front.

"I'm not an environmentalist; I've never liked people with long hair sitting in trees and smoking a pipe," he said. "But I would consider anyone who would violate this front my enemy. I guarantee you that if this thing goes through, there will be a lot of us lying down in front of bulldozers and not moving."

But this place, where the tabletop Great Plains crash headlong into the shins of the towering Rockies, contains deposits of natural gas that the industry and the Bush administration say are a key to securing the nation's energy independence.

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