Oil and natural gas drilling in the western US has spurred some unlikely alliances. From Wyoming’s Red Desert to Colorado’s Roan Plateau, ranchers, business people, environmentalists, Indian tribes, hunters, anglers, outfitters, and others have joined forces to try to stem the drilling boom on some of the nation’s wildest federal lands. In some instances, the bi-partisan coalitions have been fighting to ban drilling for decades.

The battle against energy development is still raging on in many regions, but Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is one success story. After years of activism by a motley assortment of individuals and organizations, the area received federal protection last year. A ban enacted in December made future oil and gas leasing off-limits on the public lands of the 150-mile-long Front. And the region may be poised for even greater protection.

“There are some places that drilling can be done, if it’s done right,” says Gloria Flora, a former Forest Service supervisor and director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, a non-profit in Montana dedicated to protecting public lands. “But there are places that aren’t appropriate—places of huge ecological significance, like the Front.”

The Front is comprised of towering limestone and shale reefs that crash into the prairie. The intersection of the habitats fosters some of the greatest biological diversity in the contiguous US. Every species that Lewis and Clark encountered when they trekked the region 200 years ago is still present today, except for bison. Still mostly undeveloped, the Front is home to grizzlies, black bear, elk, deer, moose, wolves, cougars, lynx, and hundreds of other species.

Protecting the landscape seemed like a long shot in 1977 when now-retired elementary school teacher Gene Sentz co-founded Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front, a group that pushed for an end to mineral and energy leases and still works to protect the area today. Major oil companies like Chevron were planning to drill. At a meeting in 1977, the Forest Service showed attendees a map and explained the agency’s plan to lease all National Forest land on the Front for oil and gas development.

“I thought, holy smokes,” says Sentz. “The more I started digging into it, the more I was concerned. I saw first-hand some of the devastation that coal mining had done in West Virginia, where I grew up. I didn’t want to see it happen here.”

Sentz, along with a dozen or so other locals, including a taxidermist and ranchers, founded the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front. Over the next 20 years, they pushed for federal protection of the land. Meanwhile, the number of leases for oil and gas development increased.

“Nothing happened on most of those leases, but they did hit some gas in a couple of spots in the 80s,” says Sentz.

But as leases for oil and gas development swelled, so did the number of people pushing for a drilling ban. Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front eventually joined the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, a group of individuals and organizations including the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and The Wilderness Society.

“The more it heated up—opening up the front to drilling—the more it brought people like me into the forefront,” says Stoney Burk, an attorney who lives in Choteau. Burk began to advocate protecting the Front in the mid-90s, giving interviews and speaking at public meetings about the beauty of the area and the harm that could come from energy development. “One of the things you find is that you’re pretty lonely when you stand up to start, but then people get on the bandwagon,” he says.

In 1997, Flora, then supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, put a 10-year moratorium on energy leases on some 350,000 acres of the area’s 1.8-million acres of national forest. Public comment solicited by the Lewis and Clark National Forest found that 80 percent of the public supported the moratorium before it was issued. The ban withstood court challenges by the oil and gas industry.

But in 2003, it looked like the drillers were coming back. That year, the Bush administration instructed federal land managers to remove regulatory obstacles to drilling in the Front and several other Western regions.

The administration’s instructions became irrelevant in 2006. Attached to a tax-relief bill the president signed in December was bi-partisan legislation championed by Montana Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns that expanded and made permanent the 1997 moratorium. The provision banned new leases on all public land along the Rocky Mountain Front, and existing leases wouldn’t be open for re-leasing if sold, traded, or donated. The provision also offered energy companies a tax break if they sold or donated their existing leases on 106,000 federal acres to nonprofit groups or the government.

“It’s a culmination of years and years of fighting, and I’m delighted,” says Burk. “But we still have more work to do.”

One recent change the groups believe will help protect the Front is the new travel plan issued in October by the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The plan governs travel and recreation uses on the lower two-thirds of the Front for the next two decades, emphasizing horse packing and hiking, and limiting motor vehicles.

Ultimately, many would like to see much of the Front designated as wilderness, something only Congress can do. “We have the opportunity to keep the Rocky Mountain Front the way that it is,” says Gabriel Furshong, a field organizer with the Montana Wilderness Association. “It is already wilderness—it simply lacks the name, the legality.”

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in November 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

All right on the Rocky Mountain Front
A coalition of activists helps stall energy development in Montana.