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Saving Our Wild Places: Conservation Activist Gene Sentz

(This is the third in a series of Q & A's on the Crown of the Continent, a 10-million acre expanse of land in northern Montana and southern Canada. Gene Sentz is co-founder of the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front, one of the organizations whose activism resulted in the banning of oil and gas leasing in the Front. To learn more about this wild place and how Earthjustice is working to protect it, check out our Crown web feature. You can also check out Gene's amazing pictures of the Crown.)

EJ: You've been working to protect and preserve the Rocky Mountain Front for more than three decades. How did you first get involved?

GS: In the summer of 1977, there was an outfitters' meeting and the U.S. Forest Service was showing the projects that they were going to be involved with that year. One of the main projects was to lease everything on National Forest lands in the Rocky Mountain Front to oil and gas companies. Up until that time, there had been very little drilling on National Forest land at all. I just couldn’t believe that they were going to lease everything to drilling. That fall after hunting season, a bunch of us locals got together and eventually we talked the Forest Service into backing off of leasing. That was the first step.

EJ: In 2006, President Bush signed bi-partisan legislation that expanded and made permanent a 1997 moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on public lands along the Front. That was a huge victory and your organization was a big part of that, correct?

GS: It sure was. The history leading up to that is also pretty interesting because in the early 1980s oil companies requested permission from the U.S. government to seismograph the entire Bob Marshall Wilderness area, which was one of the prime wilderness areas in the 1964 Wilderness Act. There was a clause in the Wilderness Act that allowed them to explore for minerals for 20 years and they were trying to get in there before the 1984 deadline. Our congressman at the time in Washington was Pat Williams and he worked out a deal in Congress to not allow that to happen.

The issue came up again in the 1990s. Gloria Flora became the new forest supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. We were wondering about her background as a landscape architect, and I remember thinking, what does she know about anything? But it was the best thing that ever happened to us because, after a lot of public debate, Gloria made the decision to not allow any new leases anywhere on National Forest land in the Rocky Mountain Front south of Glacier Park and east of the Bob Marshall, which was a landmark administrative decision. We were overjoyed at that.

EJ: You co-founded the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front, which included a diverse group of locals, everyone from ranchers to taxidermists. How were you able to bring together such unlikely allies?

GS: That’s a good question. We just all love that country and we didn’t want to see road development going into areas that had never been developed before. It’s de facto wilderness. And we just want to see the Front stay the way it is and not get roaded up.

Gene Sentz, co-founder of the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front.

EJ: What are some of the iconic creatures that you've come across during your hikes through the Front?

GS: Well, I suppose the most iconic around here is the grizzly bears. This is the only place in the lower 48 states where the grizzlies come out onto the plains. We have the second largest elk herd in the United States. We have good deer populations: mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope. We’ve got lynx, which is a threatened species, as well as bobcat, mountain lions and wolves now. The wolves that we have came in from Canada. They were not planted here like in Yellowstone. Our biologists say that this part of Montana has every species of critter except for the free-roaming buffalo that were here when Lewis and Clark came through the area. So it is a pretty spectacular area for wildlife habitat as well as scenery and heritage, history and so forth. (Learn more about other species in the Crown, such as the wolverine, lynx and gray wolf.) 

EJ: I read that you've covered just about every square inch of the Bob Marshall wilderness. Do you have a favorite spot?

GS: I think all of the places are my favorite place. I guess I do have some favorite places, but I wouldn’t tell you, of course! It has been a wonderful experience. I’ve been so fortunate to be back there so much of the time and just enjoy and really appreciate it. It took us about 30 years to protect the Front, but we're pretty excited about the way it turned out.