Is Schweitzer overstepping?

After ordering a moratorium on natural resource extraction in the Flathead National Forest this week, Gov. Brian Schweitzer finds himself under fire from those who believe he may be overstepping his power.

The Montana Legislature's chief lawyer, Greg Petesch, says state law may not explicitly permit the governor to unilaterally halt permitting of natural gas, oil or gravel mining operations.

"I'm unaware of that authority," Petesch says.

Schweitzer directed the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to halt permitting such operations along the North Fork Flathead River Basin on March 15. The move comes on the heels of an agreement Schweitzer signed off on last month with the British Columbian government that protects the ecologically diverse Flathead region from resource extraction on both sides of the border.

DEQ Director Richard Opper supports Schweitzer's decision.

"I have a directive staring me in the face from the governor," he says, "and I have every intention of following it."

The directive is a stopgap measure as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar evaluates—at Schweitzer's request—the legality of oil and gas exploration leases granted during the '80s under then Secretary of State James Watt.

"Even though the Watt Interior Department improperly leased them," Schweitzer says, "[the companies] are still standing on first base. And if something should move, then they are the ones that would be able to come around the bases and drill. What we're saying is that you improperly got to first base, and you should go back to the dugout where you belong."

But even the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), which opposes mining in the Flathead, questions the governor's authority to act unilaterally.

"That is not a legal action for the state to take," says MEIC Executive Director Jim Jensen.

Schweitzer maintains otherwise, but still acknowledges the likely next step.

"If you're going to sue the state of Montana, stand in line," he says, "because virtually any decision that we make relative to natural resources, for or against, there's somebody who would like to take us to court."

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