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In Montana, the next Arctic Refuge debate

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In autumn, the dry grasslands of Montana paint the foothills of the Rocky Mountains a pale yellow, and grizzly bears follow the creeks downhill to gorge on serviceberries or chokecherries in wetland thickets burnt red by frost. As the weather grows cold, the bears will be joined by herds of elk and deer or by lone predators like lynx and wolverine.

Modern conservationists call this wild country "the American Serengeti." But unlike the African Serengeti, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, a 100-mile stretch of glacier-sculpted peaks and valleys held by the US Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has only temporary protection against oil and gas drilling.

That could change. In a debate starkly reminiscent of the battle over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the Montana Front lands are the latest to join America's heated debate over energy production and wildlife. At issue: would an initial development of 11 wells, producing a moderate amount of natural gas, leave a footprint acceptably small to justify drilling in one of the world's most striking and largely unspoiled landscapes?

The Bush administration has targeted the Rocky Mountain Front, along with the ANWR, for oil and gas exploration. Last fall, the BLM issued new policies aimed at reducing barriers to oil and gas leasing on its lands and launched an environmental impact study along the Front, to be completed by year's end. Energy firms want to extract gas through existing and new leases on BLM and US Forest lands. If approved, drilling could begin by 2005.

In addition, the US Forest Service will reconsider a drilling moratorium it issued six years ago on the Lewis and Clark National Forest, a portion of the Front, when it expires in 2006.

Two months' worth of gas

The Front is part of what geologists call the Thrust Belt, where oceanic plates collided, sending vast ribs of rock upward to form the Rocky Mountains. Geologists believe natural gas is trapped in pockets between those plates.


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