No Quiet on the Front 

Ranchers, activists and gas companies prepare to battle over the Rocky Mountain Front

Though it is beautiful and wild, Montana’s portion of the Rocky Mountain Front is not a pristine wildland. It forms the eastern border of the 2.1 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which extends from the Canadian border south some 200 miles along the east side, or Front, of the Rockies. Portions of the Front are accessible by car. Montana state Highway 434, for instance, which intersects Montana 200 not long after Rodger’s Pass, takes a northerly jaunt across the Dearborn River, then puts you practically underneath the dramatic escarpments that form what the Blackfeet called “the Backbone of the World.” For the past century, cows have grazed here, gnawing along the backbone, their numbers significant enough to compromise the tapestry of wildflowers and grasses, living testament to cattle interests that ruled Montana at one time. Still, the evident weave of blue lupine, yellow arnica and balsamroot, and the sheer scale of the landscape begin to draw attention away from the cows, away from the reality of traveling by car over a road. Raptors wheel in the sky above, seemingly chasing clouds, which, laden with Pacific moisture, wither in their clash with the peaks of the Front and the drier air on this side of the divide.

Things get wild here even without the wildlife. A missile silo sits a half-block off the unpaved highway. Though many of Montana’s ICBM launch pads were decommissioned in the ’90s, this one still has the barbed wire atop chain link fence around it, and the warning sign from the Department of Defense about shooting, prosecuting, then fining trespassers. The dirt road continues its parallel track along the spine of the continent. The silo recedes into the landscape, like a deeply repressed fear into the mind. Cows and cold wars have left an indelible, though fading, mark on the Front. Yet the political legacy of both industry and national security needs are about to resurface. A looming energy crisis, whether real or imagined, coupled with President Bush’s energy policy, which relies on creating a domestic supply to meet demand, have recreated an economic and political climate in which it’s possible to consider reopening natural gas wells that were discovered and drilled on the Front over the previous four decades.

It won’t be easy. Hunters, ranchers, hikers, wilderness advocates and wildlife biologists have discovered that the Front, even with its checkerboard of private, tribal, state and federal control, is prime wild country, big, diverse and healthy enough still to withstand the scars of the past. Industry claims that with new technology and a developing land ethic of its own, tapping the Backbone of the World to extract much needed fuel will amount to barely a scratch. Whether federal land management agencies heed the wishes of local citizens and leave the Front as it is or bend to the whim of extractive industry is a question that’s being answered quickly just east of the Eden Bob Marshall helped create. Already, the Blackfeet Nation has leased some of its land to a Canadian firm, K2, on a lucrative 50-year term. And StarTech, a division of another Canadian energy giant, Impact Energy, has already staked and surveyed a site it owns a lease for underneath Choteau Mountain in the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area.

A drive over from Missoula, and subsequent hike in Blackleaf, comes partly at the urging of Murray Mason, vice president in charge of production for Impact. Invariably polite, open, and patient after fielding questions about his company’s efforts in Montana, Mason encourages concerned citizens to visit the place under Choteau Mountain proposed for drilling.

“It’s a good idea to walk in there and check it out for yourself,” says Mason. “I know we’d sure like to sit and talk with these people, and show them what we can do.”

Equally interested in sending some journalists on a long walk is Choteau school teacher Gene Sentz, who spends much of his non-school time advocating for the Front to remain undeveloped. Citizen Sentz has offered coffee, along with a map and detailed set of directions to the proposed drill site. His place is still an hour away as the mud of Montana 434 gives way to asphalt and the little town of Augusta.

In the meantime, information provided by the Bureau of Land Management’s gas and oil lease specialist, Don Judice, gets a cursory review. According to an Environmental Impact Statement completed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1992, there could be enough natural gas underneath Choteau Mountain to supply the entire country with natural gas—for two to five days. Or there could be nothing. Such is the ambiguous nature of oil and gas exploration. Blackleaf drill sites have already yielded 7 billion cubic feet of gas from existing producing wells, which guarantees absolutely nothing in terms of future yield, only a greater likelihood than drilling 10,000 feet underneath, say, the train station in Great Falls. Whether the supply is enough to last a week or a decade, the probability of gas underneath Choteau Mountain is high enough that StarTech is willing to bet it can turn a profit on whatever is there. Whether they will be allowed to is another story.

Tiny Footprint or Tons of Fuel?

In May, the Ninth Circuit Court upheld the Forest Service’s 1997 decision to impose a moratorium on new gas and oil drilling on the Lewis and Clark National Forest. No such ban was adopted by the BLM. As such, Don Judice’s job is much more complex than his counterpart’s at the Forest Service. No fewer than three companies are interested in activating gas leases they own on BLM land along the Front, though StarTech is by far the biggest.

Judice’s task is a formidable one. Energy exploration advocates in Great Falls are interested in that town becoming more like Calgary, Alberta in the next few decades, a kind of Dallas or Houston of the American Northern Rockies. Their influence is considerable, yet it is countered by state and national environmental groups, who promise to fight any new development along the Front with a ferocity not seen since the James Watt era.

On the record as being opposed to reopening the Front as well are a handful of powerful Montana politicians. New Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, formerly head of Region I based in Missoula, along with Sen. Max Baucus, has declared opposition to reopening the Front. They are opposed by Rep. Denny Rehberg and Sen. Conrad Burns, who are courting oil and gas as a solution to Montana’s economic woes. With all sides declaring their allegiances and pulling mightily, tensions have already tightened, tempers already flared.

At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Judice, one local citizen told him that hers would be the first body the bulldozers would have to drive over to get to the drill site in the Blackleaf. Judice, for his part, says he simply wants to see everyone follow applicable laws. The law, of course is open to interpretation, and litigation seems to be a likely course of action before the drilling begins.

Judice and the BLM seem much more open than the Forest Service to the claims of industry that exploration will leave “only a tiny footprint,” in the words of Bush administration officials. On the face of it, such claims seem outlandish in the Blackleaf. According to Judice, StarTech must ferry 100 semi-truck loads of drilling equipment some three miles and 2,000 vertical feet up nothing more than a primitive two-track road hastily constructed in the early 1960s when the area was surveyed for possible oil and gas deposits. Initially, Judice seems skeptical that this is possible.

“It’s not clear whether the EIS or existing federal law would allow them to build a new access road,” he says. “That two-track is obviously a concern of ours, they’ll have to skid their loads in with D-9 cats, and even with that, they’ll require auxiliary help.”

Judice mentions the possibility of helicopters as an alternative, but recognizes StarTech’s profit margin may thin under such a plan. Does the profitability of a Canadian energy corporation influence the decision of an American land management agency? Not directly. That would be illegal. But the BLM’s position, reflected in Judice’s comments, seems more compatible with corporate needs than the Forest Service’s.

“The problem with everyone’s perception,” postulates Judice, “is they’re not understanding what the impacts will be. The impact at the drilling face is short-term. Long-term, however you want to define that, the impacts are fairly benign. The difficulty is with the public, who sometimes want lands regulated, chained, locked, and access minimized. There have been some incredible successes with long-term rehabilitation and the industry is very aware of this.”

Despite the candor of his remarks, Judice has earned the respect of both sides, including Gene Sentz, whose house is getting closer as the morning slips toward mid-day. I start to ponder what the term “rehabilitation” implies, but suddenly we are in Choteau. The Sentz residence is fairly easy to find. In a small central Montana town, his has got to be the only front door with Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze.

Such decoration has personal meaning for Sentz. In the early 1960s, after earning a degree in forestry, Sentz signed on with one of the first Peace Corps contingents to volunteer in Nepal. Though brief stints with the Forest Service followed, the life of a teacher in the mountains appealed, and he’s taught in Choteau schools since the late ’70s. Perhaps because of his history as a forester, Sentz seems to prefer to fight for the Front with map, compass and computer as much as vocal protest. He fills coffee cups and studies the map.

“Most summers, I’ve taken work as a guide, leading pack trips, but this summer, some people are encouraging me to take an active role in this.” Sentz pauses momentarily, seemingly ambivalent about less time spent in the mountains he loves. “So I’m going to do it—I’ll be visiting with editorial boards in and around the state in the next few weeks.”

About the particulars of preserving the Front, Sentz is much more certain. The proposed drill site, he notes, is at the head of Blindhorse Creek, a small drainage not far from a sacred Blackfeet burial site. “Looks like the first order of business will have to be a lawsuit to determine if these leases are even valid,” predicts Sentz. “Similar leases in the Deep Creek portion of the Front were declared invalid because no EIS was done before the Forest Service granted the leases.”

The BLM and StarTech are willing to test the validity of granted leases in court, since there is an EIS, though it’s due to be updated, a process that leaves Startech at least two years away from drill work, which Sentz views as breathing room, but far from a solution. “I was up in Alberta last weekend taking a closer look at a couple of sour gas sweetening plants”—gas extracted from the Front is said to be “sour,” meaning a process to remove excess hydrogen sulfite must be undertaken before it is suitable for consumers—“One near Waterton and Pincher Creek looks about like the size of the Frenchtown pulp mill, complete with smokestacks, gas flares, paved roads, railroad cars hauling out huge piles of solid sulfur waste. That country is a lot like Montana’s Front, except up there it’s heavily developed with roads, power lines, pipelines, and little towns. I was glad to get back into ‘wild’ Montana.”

Over a second cup of coffee, Sentz gives us fool-proof directions to the head of Blindhorse Creek. “Don’t walk up the two-track right at the locked gate,” warns Sentz. “It’s private property. There’s a fence line on the other side of the creek. Park there, and head straight for the canyon bottom. You’ll have to skip across the creek a few times, but you’ll run into the road at the head of the canyon. Check the road out for yourself. You’ll see the survey stakes and orange flagging once you’re up there. I suppose you could drive up there if the gate was open and you had a four-wheeler you didn’t really care about.” The ethic Sentz imparts in his directions is clear: Don’t trespass even if no one is looking. Spoken like a Montana citizen as well as activist in full.

Navigating the New West

Sentz has asked us to pay a visit to the rancher he guides for in the summer, giving us directions also to the Deep Creek Ranch five miles south of Blindhorse Creek.

Gene Sentz’s friend and part-time employer is Chuck Blixrud. In name and appearance, Blixrud looks like he materialized straight out of some mythical, historical West, which is in some ways true. The guest ranch he currently operates is just up the road from the log cabin where he was born. Blixrud has lived on the Front as a rancher of cows, and more recently tourists, all his life. His holdings include “just 1200 acres,” he says modestly, which is fairly spartan considering the historic size of neighboring cattle ranches.

It is the term “historic” that will likely spawn a conversation with Blixrud. A resident of the area for better than 50 years, Blixrud has seen times change. For one thing, the ranch down the road, formerly dubbed the Circle 8, is now Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy as the last stronghold in which grizzly bears can breed on the plains. Blixrud is all for it—and openly opposed to outside interests drilling for gas in the Front. Yet Blixrud has some reservations about the new West, ones that bring into question issues with a broader scope than just energy supply.

“When I first got married and bought land here, every ranch, all up and down the Front—we knew them all—was owned by the families that lived on them,” recalls Blixrud. “So there was an obligation to take care of things, to work the land. Now everyone knows there’s no money in ranching. A rancher’s wealth is in his land, so if the land is in poor shape, he’s got nothing. Even if he’s doing everything right, there has been years where it was impossible to hang on to the land and make ends meet. And that’s where the loyalty to these oil companies comes from. In lean years, the annual money paid out for leases on mineral rights kept some of these operations in business.”

But times, as Blixrud notes, are different now. Slowly at first, quicker in recent years, those huge ranches were sold off in chunks. But it is possible to sell the surface and retain the mineral rights to private property, a reality that has made private mineral development more of an inheritance windfall than a means of keeping large private holdings intact. It’s part of a larger pattern, observes Blixrud, wherein fewer people are actually residents of the land, making land more and more susceptible to manipulation by outside interests. Relying on the kindness of strangers interested in a toney vacation ranch has so far proved mostly a trade off for the Front adjacent to Deep Creek, but Blixrud maintains a healthy skepticism.

“People that have made their money elsewhere and who buy land here seem to have some environmental awareness,” says Blixrud, “but the first thing that happens is the no trespassing signs go up. Then the fences. I’m used to that now, I just expect it.”

But if Blixrud is resentful toward these developments, it isn’t apparent in the way he talks about them. Far from being stuck in a bygone era, Blixrud sees newcomers as having the potential to help. “Some people come out here from the East, which from my impression must be a terrible place to live, and something out here just grabs a hold of them. They want to help. There’s been times I’ve been able to rally old clients on land issues around here.”

Nor is Blixrud unwelcoming to those who might otherwise be his enemies. Next month, a group of oil executives have booked a trip with him, an irony not lost to the rancher. “Most of the time, I’m too busy working to get too wrapped up in these issues,” he says. “Besides, they’ll come here and have a look around, they’ll get to ride up into the Bob, and who knows what they might think after that?”

The loss of autonomy—of local control—is what seems to bother Blixrud the most. “In my mind, NEPA [the National Environmental Protection Act] is just as big an enemy as the oil and gas companies,” he says. “The only reliable way anyone’s going to keep the oil companies away is for all my neighbors to come together and be determined to not let it happen. And,” he says with an irresistible ten-gallon grin, “I have great confidence that my neighbors can do that when the time comes.”

Getting from Chuck Blixrud’s ranch to where the walking begins at Blindhorse Creek requires backtracking a few miles to an unmarked turn. It has rained, and spots in the dirt road have become a quagmire. In between the spinning and sliding of tires on mud, some statistics about the energy infrastructure currently in place spin in my head. Already there are some 200,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in the nation. Dick Cheney’s energy policy report recommends adding 38,000 more, an increase in capacity of nearly 20 percent. In the process, Bush/Cheney recommend invoking the right of eminent domain to condemn private property for more pipelines and power lines, a move that puts them in conflict with the property rights constituency they courted in the election, a healthy segment of it here in Montana.

Concurrently, mergers and acquisitions in the energy business have taken place at a record pace. Accusations of price fixing and monopoly have followed. According to a PBS/Frontline/New York Times series on the energy crisis that aired at the beginning of June, natural gas prices have actually dropped everywhere but in the largest markets, where demand is highest. Deregulation was purported to have the opposite effect. The average American consumer, according to the same report, pipes in natural gas to his or her home for about four bucks a cubic foot, while in Los Angeles, consumers are paying as much as 11. How much will Montanans pay when gas-fired electricity plants come on line, and the full effect of deregulation is being felt? Will the dwindling yet powerful energy companies use legitimate economic fears to cynically manipulate public opinion toward more natural resource extraction? In the face of such possible scenarios, how does Chuck Blixrud stay so optimistic about the virtue of his neighbors?

The Signs Along the Way

A huge swamp blocks the road ahead. About a mile short of the spot Sentz marked on the map, it’s apparent the hike will start early, into a 30-mile-per-hour headwind.

Impact Energy of Canada is no exception to the mergers that have dominated the energy industry. ARC, a giant Canadian energy firm, bought StarTech, part of which became Impact, in February for a cool $485 million. Murray Mason, the Impact vice president who invited me from his desk in Calgary to hike the Blackleaf, explains the merger this way: “It was a good deal for everyone involved. It puts the company on better terms for profitability.”—The last company to drill in the Blackleaf is bankrupt—“We carved out a niche for our American holdings in the process, so you can still call our operations in Montana StarTech.”

More questions for Mason: Why carefully survey a site you want to drill when, according to the BLM, it’s likely a minimum two-year wait before actual work can begin?

“Well, if you’re going to do an environmental impact study, you need to know exactly where to look,” explains Mason.

What about safety? Is it possible to drill in an undeclared wilderness like the Front and not have it wind up something less than when you started?

“All of us on the board at Impact have been working in the industry for 20 years,” he replies. “We feel we have a good safety record, and prudent drilling operations.” He goes on to describe the technology that would allow them to continue their satisfactory safety and public relations record—sumpless wells, totally enclosed drill systems, remote monitoring of operations—and closes by reiterating his desire to meet with concerned citizens of the Montana Rocky Mountain Front. He notes there is a meeting slated for June 28 with Don Judice in Great Falls. “We really need the chance to meet these people,” says Mason. “There’s so much speculation about what really happens at a drill site, and we know some about it. We want to show people what we can do.”

The two-track is evident ahead; my attention is drawn outward toward a fluttering survey marker. Again the juxtaposition of wilderness and civilization is unnerving. Fresh bear scat not far from the signal orange flagging and survey stakes testifies to the fact that this is viable bear habitat. It begins to rain. Waiting under the trees for the brief squall to pass, there is discussion about whether to cut the walk short. We recall that Sentz told us we would run into some survey work a little better than half way in, where the road meets the canyon for the first time. We proceed. The two-track is narrow, steep, and rocky with at least four switchbacks. There’s barely room for two people and a dog.

Finally we’re on top. This place is impossibly beautiful. The pictures probably do it more justice than any description a writer could offer. Standing in the cold wind beneath the Backbone of the World, there’s not much to think about. Such a place commands your attention. The survey stakes and flags, intrusive as they are, seem insignificant. They don’t seem likely to last a winter up here, and some of it hasn’t even lasted through this windstorm. People have been up here, but not very much. We start down toward the car, hoping it hasn’t sunk to the doors in mud. A bluff close to the north, very likely the site where the Blackfeet buried their dead in full view of the Front, is lit up briefly by a hole in the sky allowing the sun to peek through.

On the way home, we run into more rain. Just east of Ovando, there is a sign commemorating the life of Bob Marshall, with a view into the southern end of the wilderness he helped create. The sign has been altered with editorial remarks from both pro-and anti-wilderness factions. A free-wheeling, independent optimism like Chuck Blixrud’s comes to mind. He seems able to believe that to save wild places, there must be people nearby who trust one another. A wilderness that exists by official permission, bordered with signs and lists of things not to bring or do may not last. Nor likely will the Front as it is today.

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