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Down to Earth: Q&A with Conservation Activist Gene Sentz

Gene Sentz has been working to protect and preserve the Rocky Mountain Front for more than three decades. Listen to an audio interview with Gene.

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Conservation activist Gene Sentz discusses his decades-long mission to keep polluting oil and gas wells out of the Rocky Mountain Front.

Length: 16 min 42 sec

Recorded: March 2011

[ Download MP3 ]

Gene Sentz, co-founder of the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front, speaks with Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch.

The Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front is one of the organizations whose activism resulted in the banning of oil and gas leasing on the Front in the late 90s. Since then, Earthjustice has worked with organizations like Gene's to continue to protect the Rocky Mountain Front, the surrounding landscape and the wildlife that reside there from harmful development.

Jessica Knoblauch: So I did a little research and saw that you've been working to protect and preserve the Front for more than three decades. How did you get involved with conservation issues in the Rocky Mountain Front?

Gene Sentz: In the summer of 1977, there was an outfitters' meeting and the U.S. Forest Service was there 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 I had been here seven years by then, and I didn’t even know that the area had been leased before but it had and the oil companies had done a little bit of work drilling here and there, but very little on National Forest land at all. And I just couldn’t believe that they were going to lease everything again because the way I read it, once it was leased that was like a right that the companies had to drill on places that had never had a road and so forth.

So that fall after hunting season a bunch of us locals got together and had a little meeting. And in March of 1978, the Forest Service had had a few public meetings, but we had our own public meeting here in the Choteau pavilion and invited the Forest Service and we did talk them into backing off of leasing. So that was the first step in the whole program that we worked on. Up until that time, I think a lot of the conservation groups were focused more on western Montana and other areas and they helped us. For example, the Montana Wilderness Association, I don't think even knew much about the Rocky Mountain Front at that time until we sort of raised a little bit of consciousness there. So that's how I first got involved with it.

Jessica: About 30 years later, 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 you were obviously a big part of that, you and your organization.

Gene: It sure was. The history leading up to that is also pretty interesting because in the early 1980s oil companies requested from the U.S. government permission to seismograph the entire Bob Marshall Wilderness area, which was one of the prime wilderness areas in the 1964 Wilderness Act. But there was a clause in the act that allowed them to explore for minerals for 20 years and they were trying to get in there before the 1984 deadline. And our congressman at the time in Washington was Pat Williams and he worked out a deal in Congress to not allow that to happen, which nobody wanted that to happen, but in the process the Rocky Mountain Front outside of the wilderness got leased again, which was what we were trying to prevent all the time. But, you know, nothing much happened.

Swift Reservoir Lake in Birch Creek, with the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the background. (Gene Sentz)

But then the issue came up again of course in the 1990s. Gloria Flora, who was a young lady at the time, became the new forest supervisor of the Lewis and Clark and the Great Falls. We were wondering about her background as a landscape architect, and I remember thinking, how can a landscape architect become a forest supervisor and 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 lease 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 kind of a landmark administrative decision. And we were overjoyed at that.

About the same time as that decision, another fellow from Colorado came up here and staked a bunch of hard rock mining claims in a portion of the Front. And we actually got together. Mike Dominick was the Forest Service chief in Washington at the time. And we went back and lobbied him and the Forest Service to please not allow this to happen anywhere else in the Front. In the meantime, the guy walked away from his claims and the Forest Service did an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] and administratively withdrew the same area that Gloria had, the whole Rocky Mountain Front, from hard rock mining.

So we had kind of two steps there along the way. Then we just kept pounding away at it and got it in through an act of Congress about 10 years later. We did feel like we were pretty successful. It took us about 30 years, but we were pretty excited about the way it turned out.

Jessica: It sounds like there were two different fights. There was one to ban oil and gas and there was also the effort to ban all new mineral leasing.

Gene: That’s right. The act of Congress that President Bush signed in 2006 pretty much bans all mineral development, including oil and gas or hardrock mining, any U.S. government minerals, anywhere on National Forest lands, which actually even includes a little bit of state and private land underneath where it’s what they call a split estate where the minerals still belong to the U.S. government.

Members of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front meeting with a member of Sen. Max Baucus's staff. (Gene Sentz)

Jessica: As part of this activism, you co-founded the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front, which included a group of local people, everyone from ranchers to even a taxidermist. How is an issue like protecting the Front able to bring together such unlikely allies?

Gene: Well, that’s a good question. In fact, that taxidermist you're talking about, his name is Roy Jacobson. He's one of my good buddies and he's still very active. We just all love that country and we didn’t want to see road development going into areas that had never been developed before. We just feel that this Rocky Mountain Front area, although it has not yet been designated and we’d like to see part of it designated as part of the Bob Marshall, it's just as good as the Bob Marshall. It’s certainly de facto wilderness. And we just want to see it stay the way it is and not get roaded up.

Jessica: How have legal organizations such as Earthjustice played a role in this? What kinds of laws are available?

Gene: The travel plan for designated wilderness prohibits any kind of motorized vehicles on wilderness trails. Most of us are horsemen or hikers, and we just assume see most of the trails stay clear of motorized vehicles and remain as quiet trails. And one area that’s still quite contested and very legally complex area, it's part of the Rocky Mountain Front, it’s between the Bob Marshall and Glacier National Park, and it's bounded by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on the east side and it’s called the Badger-Two Medicine area. And it’s another area that’s just as spectacular as anywhere in the Bob Marshall and almost as nice as Glacier National Park.

The Rocky Mountain Front is the only place in the lower-48 where grizzly bears come out on the plains. (NPS)

After the late 1980s, people started using four wheelers to go into that area and pretty soon up until a couple of years ago that area had become pretty much overrun. When the Forest Service came out with their new travel plan here about two years ago, they split the rest of the Rocky Mountain Front south of Birch creek from the Badger-Two Medicine on their decision-making process and they came out with a pretty fairly decent travel plan for everything south. We supported that. It does allow a little bit of motorized use on some of the trails, but most of the trails are quiet.

But for the Badger-Two Medicine, the Forest Service worked with the tribe. They banned all motorized vehicles in Badger-Two Medicine basically. That decision was appealed by the motorized groups. First of all through an administrative appeal and then through the courts. The judge just made the decision here about a month ago to uphold the Forest Service decision. Earthjustice and Tim Preso, the attorney in Bozeman, Montana, and I was at the hearing in Great Falls and I thought he made probably the best defenses of any of the Forest Service decisions. And the judge did uphold that.

Jessica: And, of course, the Rocky Mountain Front is home to all sorts of species, which were around during the Lewis and Clark expedition. What are some of the iconic creatures that you've come across during your hikes through the wilderness?

Gene: Well of course I suppose the most iconic around here is the grizzly bears. This is the only place in the lower-48 where the grizzlies do come out on the plains. We have the second largest elk herd in the United States. I guess the Yellowstone herd is larger. The Sun River elk herd winters on the Sun River game range just southwest of us here. We have good deer populations, mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope. We’ve got lynx, which is a threatened species, bobcat, mountain lions and wolves now. The wolves that we have came in from Canada. They were not planted here like in Yellowstone. These are wolves that have just come in more recently, I think, although there has always been a wolf or two traveling through the country here. Our biologists say that this part of Montana, which George Bird Grinnell, the founder of Glacier Park, called the Crown of the Continent. It has every species of critter except for the free-roaming buffalo that was 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.

Gene Sentz has spent three decades working to protect the Rocky Mountain Front. (Gene Sentz)

I might add that the private land along the mountain front is extremely important too. I think almost everyone in our group would agree that the large ranches and the families that have held onto those places have been the big key to the wintering wildlife because winter is the critical time for wildlife up there and a lot of those animals winter on private land. I will be the first to compliment the Nature Conservancy on their work as well as some other groups to purchase conservation easements on those private ranches to help the families hang on to their land and keep it in an undeveloped state for the wildlife.

Jessica: Well, just one final question. [Earthjustice Attorney] Tim Preso mentioned you've covered just about every square inch of the Bob Marshall wilderness. Do you have a favorite place you like to go to or hike to?

Gene: 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! Actually I have covered most of the trails and I guess most of the mountain peaks on the east side of the continental divide, that portion of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat. It has been a wonderful experience. I’ve been so fortunate to work in the Forest Service and for outfitters where I could be back there so much of the time and just enjoy it and really appreciate it.

We certainly do appreciate what Earthjustice has done in helping us out on our projects here. They were keeping a pretty close eye on the oil and gas issues as well as the trail plans. I met Tim Preso two or three times and he's a fine fellow.

Jessica: I'll be sure to tell him that you said that. I really appreciate your time. Thanks and have a good weekend. Stay warm!

Gene: Well, it's supposed to warm up now. Spring's going to be here in a month.

Jessica: Yeah, let's hope so!

Gene: You bet. Nice talking with you, Jessica. Bye.

Jessica: You too. Bye.

Images from the Crown of the Continent: View Gene Sentz's photos of the Rocky Mountain Front. One of the largest—and last—remaining wild places in North America, the Crown of the Continent ecosystem is a ten-million acre expanse of land whose untouched wilderness harkens back to the days of Lewis & Clark.

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Office:  Northern Rockies
Program Area:  The Wild
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