The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) should suspend a planned analysis of several new drilling proposals on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front until it can demonstrate the validity of the underlying federal oil and gas leases, several local and national conservation groups urged today.
Decades ago, the BLM granted leases in the scenic and wildlife rich Blackleaf area of the Front without considering how energy exploration would impact issues such as water quality or endangered wildlife. Such an impact analysis and consultation under the Endangered Species Act is required before a valid lease can be issued by the BLM.
"The government should not be studying how and where to punch roads, drill gas wells and lay pipelines in the midst of Montana's precious Rocky Mountain Front when the crucial decision whether to allow such industrial development in these areas was never legitimately made," explained attorney Tim Preso of Earthjustice, "These Blackleaf leases share the same flaws as others that have been invalidated by the courts, and the BLM should own up to the illegality of these leases as well."
The Rocky Mountain Front is a unique natural area where the east slope of the Montana Rockies suddenly merges with the prairies. Still largely undisturbed, Montana's Front is the only place in the United states where grizzly bears still come out onto the prairie. The Front is also home to other rare wildlife such as westslope cutthroat trout, wolverine and lynx. Large herds of elk, deer, and bighorn sheep are still common.
There are now four pending drilling proposals on Forest Service and BLM leased land in the Blackleaf area, and the BLM is planning to move forward on these applications by undertaking an Environmental Impact Statement process. These old oil and gas leases would not be issued today on the Blackleaf portion of the Front, because federal and state land managers have since heard from the public and put restrictions in place. For example, in 1997 the Forest Service placed its lands on the Rocky Mountain Front off limits to oil and gas leasing. Similarly, the BLM has designated most of its lands along the Front as "Outstanding Natural Areas," while the State of Montana has created several Wildlife Management Areas on its lands along the Front.
"The government failed to follow the spirit and intent of the law in the granting of oil and gas leases, and to continue, based on flawed leases without a careful review of their validity, would clearly be wrong," explained Stoney Burk of Choteau, " I've hiked all over Montana's Front and can confidently say that this place is a national treasure that should not be sacrificed to the gods of oil and gas."
The exceptional wildlife and wilderness values of the Rocky Mountain Front have long been recognized. Past polls and comment periods have shown that a large majority of Montanans oppose opening the Front to energy exploration. This includes long-time residents of communities along the Front.
"The Rocky Mountain Front is a truly spectacular, wildlife rich place that helps make Montana special and sets it apart from other states," said Roy Jacobs, an avid hunter and Choteau taxidermist, "Montanans want the Front kept just the way it is – wild and drill-rig free."
Conservationists outlined their case through a letter sent this week to Montana BLM State Director Marty Ott. Today's letter is similar to one from November 2001 that was sent to the Montana BLM state office and also pointed out validity problems with the Blackleaf leases while requesting a formal agency investigation of the matter. The agency took no action and did not reply to that letter.
"The BLM needs to face up to the fact that it issued illegal leases along the Rocky Mountain Front before it wastes the public's time, money and energy on a new drilling study," Preso said. "We are asking the government to formally respond to our repeated requests for an answer on the lease validity issue before more taxpayer dollars are devoted to gas development in an area where the public doesn't want it and the law does not allow it."