Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Drill carefully

Posted on Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 2:18 PM

Kudos to the Independent and Alex Sakariassen for a very thoughtful and lucid insight on the dilemma we all face with regard to oil in Montana, and, of course, on this planet (see “Boom and gloom,” June 24, 2010). As a practicing landscape architect who works mostly on larger scale land planning and design issues, I was heartened to see such an in-depth review of the major issues we must all face. I sincerely hope that anyone making decisions relative to this non-renewable resource will read this article in order to more fully appreciate the gravity of our condition. I have had the good fortune of working with the Blackfeet Nation on some of their projects over the last decade, so I am well aware of the ups and downs that have confronted our First Nation neighbors to the north. I can, therefore, empathize with Grinnell Day Chief’s action of entering into the oil and gas leases that could conceivably bring more than $12 million to this cash-strapped tribe. This kind of income, if used and/or invested wisely, could substantially improve the living conditions for Montana’s largest tribe on a reservation suffering a 72 percent unemployment rate.

Without knowing the specific location of the 224,000 acres of oil leases, I can only speculate on the conditions that a prospective operator may confront at any given drill site. Fortunately, most of the eastern part of the reservation is composed of rolling hills, interspersed with meandering streams and pothole lakes; the more spectacular scenery exists along the western and southern edges of the reservation. While this may be a seemingly benign landscape, these features, nevertheless, offer their own challenges when it comes to the design and placement of any human-made facilities. They are still very sensitive landscapes with short growing seasons (61 days maximum) and brutal winters where any kind of scar will last for years, not to mention the damage that can be inflicted on sensitive habitats. I can only hope that the Blackfeet Nation staff and Tribal Council will carefully consider each and every individual lease to make absolutely certain that little or no damage to the surrounding landscape occurs; and that fully detailed contingency plans are in place in case of any accident.

It would behoove them, for example, to follow the kind of thought and decision process that Gloria Flora used, as discussed in Sakariassen’s article, when, as the Lewis & Clark National Forest supervisor, she issued the moratorium on all oil and gases leases along the Rocky Mountain Front in 1997. The year she spent mapping wildlife areas and sensitive habitats wasn’t just agency protocol, it was based on the training and education in landscape architecture she received from Pennsylvania State University. There she learned the process popularized by Ian McHarg, a landscape architect, professor and author of Design with Nature. In his book, McHarg described the technique that we as landscape architects have used for years—that of carefully mapping and analyzing any landscape, regardless of its setting or location, to determine the constraints and opportunities that that particular parcel may possess before any work is done. If the data gathered from such an exercise indicate no project should occur or that it should be substantially modified, then those findings should be followed. I hope the tribe will consider this approach to each and every lease.

Being somewhat familiar with the Rocky Mountain Front, I too share the concerns raised by Stoney Burk, the Choteau attorney, and many others regarding the preservation of the pristine lands bordering this impressive geologic feature. I firmly support, for example, the growing movement to protect these lands embodied in the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. I believe, however, if the leases are carefully administered it is possible for oil to be successfully extracted from the eastern lands of the Blackfeet Reservation. Unless and until we no longer need oil from the ground to power our economies, we will be confronted with the need for its extraction, whether from the Blackfeet Reservation or elsewhere.

Kent Watson, Missoula

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