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Should drilling be allowed along Rocky Mtn. Front?

A book would need to be written in order to fully explain and diagram the on-going discussions and controversy that surrounds the prospect of drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana.

Recently, I was invited to tour the Front by airplane. The trip offered a new perspective on the wilderness haven, a glimpse containing lush vegetation, clear waters, and jagged cliffs.

The view I witnessed of the Front might be a fading one. Startech, an oil and gas corporation from Calgary, AB, has recently become a leasee of land in the BLM's Blindhorse Outstanding Natural Area (ONA). The company proposes to drill three wells in order to tap into potential natural gas reserves.

The Montana Land Board's "sensitive area stipulations", coupled with requirements by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), have lead to an on-going Environmental Impact Study (EIS). Along with a survey, public meetings and forums have been enacted to give the public a say.

"This is public land, people have the right to voice an opinion," Choteau taxidermist Roy Jacobs said. "I want that land to still be the way it is now for my grandchildren and their children to enjoy."

Drilling on the Front is a complicated, controversial, and extremely important topic now and for the foreseeable future. Please do your part in learning about what is truly at stake on the Front. Opponents to drilling invite concerned citizens to check out the following web sites:

Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front: www.savethefront.net

Montana Wildlife Federation: www.wildmontana.org

The Wilderness Society: www.wildernesssociety.org

U.S. Bureau of Land Management: www.blm.gov

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management is conducting an EIS in order to weigh the feasibility of drilling in the Blindhorse ONA. The survey is being conducted by a contractor, Maxim Technologies, and will not be completed until September of 2005.

"This EIS is going to cost the taxpayers around $2 million," Montana Wildlife Federation's Northwest Field Organizer Nathan Birkeland said. "Our money is being spent on a very limited project. We are talking about two days worth of gas for the country. Two days."

Drilling in the Front would provide only two days of gas for the United States? Just how much gas is available on the Front? The answer to that question depends on the source. Some companies claim that the amount of gas located in the Front borders on the trillions in cubic feet.

But a recent statement by the Wilderness Society disputes this claim with information the organization gathered from surveys done by the United States Geological Survey. The Wilderness Society used estimates of economically recoverable gas, as opposed to technically recoverable gas that the management plans reference. Technically recoverable estimates ignore the economic restrictions of production.

Overall, the study found that 44 Bcf (billion cubic feet) of natural gas is technically recoverable from the Blindhorse ONA, while only 44-64 percent of the amount is economically recoverable. That leaves 21-28 Bcf of natural gas available, which amounts to eight to eleven hours of total U.S. consumption.

For a further explanation and a table of all the numbers studied, visit: www.wilderness.org/Library/Documents/loader.cfm?url=/commonspot/security/getfile.cfm&PageID=8995.

The numbers presented here a far cry from the trillions and trillions that companies have claimed to be present in the Front.

"If there was really that much gas, don't you think one of the big boys like Exxon or Chevron would come in?" Jacobs asked.

If supplies are limited, the proposed economic boom that drilling would bring to Montana will be short-lived. Many of those against drilling on the Front believe that reusable sources of energy, such as wind power, are the way to go.

The Montana Wildlife Federation, the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, and Blackfeet tribal members are some of the groups that hope to keep drilling out of the Front. The groups cite a number of reasons, ranging from the tribe's position that areas of the Front are sacred to conservation organizations fighting to maintain the untouched and wild conditions of the region.

The Front is one of the largest, most intact pieces of culturally significant and ecologically unique wildlife habitat in the country according to numerous reports and surveys. The Front is home to one of the nation's largest bighorn sheep populations as well as the second highest concentration of elk in the country.

"With drilling, we'll lose the large mule deer and grizzly populations," Karl Rappold, area rancher, said. "The animals there do not co-exist with industrialization."

Rappold's claims are reinforced by research over the years. Retired scientist, Barrie Gilbert, prepared a 35-page report on the negative effects of motorized recreation on wildlife. His report can be accessed at www.wildmontana.org/gilbertreport.pdf.

Negative effect on the wildlife is just the tip of the iceberg for those opposed to the drilling. One of the main concerns is the implementation of roads into the area, which not only will affect the wildlife, but also will usher in noxious weeds.

It is one thing to hear these claims, but another to view the end result.

"There comes a time when people have to stop listening to rhetoric and just decide on their own," Jacobs admitted.

Last Tuesday, I took that advice and joined a flight crew that was taken along the Rocky Mountain Front. Bruce Gordon, an EcoFlight pilot, volunteered his time and plane. Gordon has flown along the Rocky Mountain Front, from New Mexico to Canada.

First, a survey of the Front in Montana showcased a relatively untouched range of hills, cliffs, and vegetation. A visit into Alberta along the Front met us with a completely different site. Near the town of Pincher Creek lies the Shell Waterton natural gas plant. The plant only begins to hint at the development that has altered the landscape.

A web of roads populated the land, slinking and slithering along drainage basins in various directions. The sight was a world away from the roadless areas in Montana, but provided a sign of what may come if the Front is open to drilling.

Also, noxious weeds dominated much of the prairies along the Canadian Front, as trees and vegetation have been cleared out to implement pipelines. Wildlife populations have decreased and many outfitters have been unable to make a living with guided hunting trips.

Only time will tell if these problems become a reality on the Montana Front. As for Jacobs, Birkeland, Rappold and a thousand others, the hope is that the drilling projects never see the light of day.

In the end, each issue has two sides. Because the Front is public land, the people of Montana need to voice their opinion, whether it is for or against the drilling. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons from both sides. We will explore the other side of this debate in a future issue. This publication invites you to share your knowledge and opinions on this very important issue.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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