Environmentalists hailed a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision Monday upholding US Forest Service authority to withhold lands along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front from oil and gas development. Environmental groups had intervened to defend the Forest Service from an oil and gas industry lawsuit.
A district court earlier rejected industry's claim that the Forest Service violated a host of laws when it heeded the public's call to leave the Lewis and Clark National Forest free of bulldozers, pipes, natural gas wells, and roads. The lawsuit was filed by the Rocky Mountain Oil & Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. The Mountain States Legal Foundation represented the oil and gas industry in this case. Mountain States was headed by former Interior Secretary James Watt and is the organization Interior Secretary Gale Norton recently served in.
The lands in question extend from the Canadian border in north-central Montana and border Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas. The decision applies to more than 750,000 acres in one of the least disturbed mountain ecosystems in the world. The area is home to more than 300 wildlife species, including such threatened and endangered species as grizzly bear, gray wolf, peregrine falcon, and bald eagle. The area is also home to numerous Native American cultural and religious sites.
In court, Earthjustice represented a coalition of Native American, conservation and recreation groups including: the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Professional Wilderness Outfitters Association, Back Country Horsemen of Montana, Montana Audubon, National Wildlife Federation and George Engler,.
"Opposition to drilling the Front has been overwhelming. Now we will see if the Bush Administration listens to the majority of people who oppose drilling or whether they will let the oil and gas industry veto the public interest," said Bob Ekey director of The Wilderness Society's northern Rockies field office.
"Just look over the border into the natural gas industrial complex at Watertown Canada and you'll get a good idea of what oil and gas drilling would do to this pristine area," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell. "The Canadian side is an area that used to be home to bears and wolves and now you'll find an industrial eyesore."
The ninth circuit ruled, "...the Forest Service has discretion whether to authorize the leasing of any particular Forest Service lands for mineral exploration." The court also found that the industry group that sued the Forest Service "has no 'right' to bid for leases on any Forest Service land or to compel the Forest Service to authorize leasing of its land for mineral exploration."
The Rocky Mountain Front will likely be named as a prime target for oil and gas development in the Cheney energy report, due out next week. Conservationists expect to see additional efforts by the oil and gas industry to develop this area and expect to continue to defend the area.