Environmentalists hailed a decision in U.S. District Court today upholding a US Forest Service decision to not offer new oil and gas leases along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Environmental groups had intervened on behalf of the government in the oil and gas industry’s lawsuit. The court rejected industry’s claim that the Forest Service violated a host of laws when it heeded the public’s call to leave the pristine Rocky Mountain Front free of bulldozers, pipes, natural gas wells, and roads.
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.
Dennis Tighe, president of the Montana Wilderness Association said, “The public overwhelmingly supports keeping the Rocky Mountain Front as it is today — a wild place, with healthy wildlife and significant cultural values. The public and the Forest Service made it crystal clear that this area is more valuable as a wildland than as an industrial natural gas field.”
In his decision, Judge Charles Lovell rejected industry’s claim it had not been sufficiently warned that the Forest Service would consider the public’s overwhelming opposition to industrial development in this unique wildland. The judge concluded that industry’s arguments, “…boil down to semantics, and are disingenuous at best.”
“The decision protects the Front for future generations and at the same time preserves the jobs that depend on a pristine wilderness,” said Chuck Blixrud, a longtime outfitter from Choteau, and president of the Professional Wilderness Outfitters Association.
Jim Angell, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who represented the coalition of Native American, conservation and recreation groups that intervened in the case, explained that, “The court reaffirmed that national forests are not private fiefdoms of industry. The court recognized that the public must have a voice in how its national forests are managed.”