The Rocky Mountain Front: A No Oil and Gas Leasing Decision
By Gloria Flora

January 2003

In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service concluded an analysis of oil and gas leasing on the Lewis and Clark National Forest (L&CNF) in Montana. In a surprising decision, and very welcome decision to the public, the 800,000 acres of land along the Rocky Mountain Front were put off limits to new oil and gas leasing for the next two decades. Many people have questioned how it was that the U.S. Forest Service could chose not to offer leasing in an area desired by industry, even if it were as ecologically and socially sensitive as the Rocky Mountain Front (RMF).

The laws and processes available to the Forest Service not only allowed for such a decision, but if followed accurately, called for such a decision. When combined with the overwhelming public opposition to developing their lands in this special place, it was in truth the only choice. Unfortunately, there are abundant examples in Canada and the United States where resources on public land are sold to the highest bidder. The lack of foresight and ignoring of the public allows unsustainable development at unacceptably high environmental and social costs.

Let's examine the process the lead to the historical withdrawal of the RMF from leasing. In 1995, an analysis began on the L&CNF to examine which lands would be made available for leasing and what stipulations may be necessary for protection of the surface resources and existing uses. Using the National Environmental Policy Act, the analysis was begun for the entire Forest. An essential element in the NEPA process is public involvement.

After initial public and industry input, a range of seven feasible alternatives was identified. Those alternatives were analyzed and described in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. One, which is mandatory under NEPA, was the No Action Alternative. It serves as a basis or control with which to compare alternatives. The Forest was divided into 2 divisions, the RMF and the Jefferson because they are very different ecosystems and also differ in their potential for oil and gas development. Only natural gas is expected under the RMF. So the EIS looked at both in context of the same range of alternatives but analyzed them separately. However, even the alternative that supported the most development wasn't a whole-hog approach. We Forest officials knew from the public input and the long history of conservation efforts that that would never fly on either division.

After more public and industry involvement and some excellent work by the professional team preparing the analysis of social and environmental effects for the DEIS, we crafted a variation on alternative 7 for the RMF (released 9/96). It was a proposal for very low potential development, opening up leasing on 7% of the Front -- none allowing surface occupancy. It was a way to protect royalty income if someone drilled adjacent to Forest lands and drained the reservoir from off-site. (If the lands are not available for leasing, developers don't have to pay royalties to the U.S. government to drain it.) The Jefferson Division had a modicum of leasing, all of it with protective stipulations on the land, water and wildlife and no leasing in roadless areas.

Although there was firm support for the Jefferson Division proposal, there was overwhelming public reaction against the proposal for the Front. No one trusted the no-surface-occupancy stipulations to hold up if the lands were leased (with good cause - a recent study shows that 85% of lease stipulations are waived on request). The breakdown in public comment on the DEIS (about 1,800 responses) was 10% supporting the preliminary decision, 10% wanting more lands open and 80% saying 'You didn't hear us, we said no leasing.'

We took 10 months to analyze all the input, to stave off state legislature and Congressional attempts to trash the analysis and start over. We met numerous times with industry. They were upset that so little was leased - they felt it wouldn't be worth their while because of the restrictions on surface use and because it was strung out in a long narrow pattern unsuitable for full field development. The team also needed to incorporate new information, such as occupied habitat data on westslope cutthroat trout and grizzly bear (which eliminated a few more areas). As the Forest Supervisor, I finally decided that leasing -- in the only manner that protected the significant values of the RMF -- didn?t benefit anyone. The evidence was clear that the RMF was ecologically unique and irreplaceable. People were strongly bonded to the landscape and there were no equivalent substitutes for experiences they found on the RMF.

I decided to not lease any of it, i.e., select the No Action Alternative for the RMF. The Jefferson Division didn't change from the DEIS. Of course, I knew that such a choice may bring about unintended political consequences and could be detrimental to my career and me personally. However, it seemed a worthy risk to take in return for the overwhelming benefits to a great number of people now and in the future, not to mention the protection of such a stunning landscape.

The decision process was left up to me, as Forest Supervisor, as it was supposed to be. Jack Ward Thomas, the Chief of the Forest Service, told me he had gotten alot of pressure to direct the decision but told folks he was letting it up to me. Likewise with the Regional Foresters at the time, Hal Salwasser, then Dale Bosworth. I believe that they also thought it was a tar-baby and were quite content to leave it to me and my team.

Once reaching the decision, I had justify the decision to my forest staff, the hierarchy within the Forest Service, then duplicate the process with Bureau of Land Management (they were co-signators) and then clear it with the Under Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. I was challenged but not to any overwhelming extent. I frankly don't think anyone thought a person could actually select the No Action alternative and live to tell about it!

Finally on 9/27/97, I held a press conference and announced the decision. I based the decision on people's sense of place -their connection to the landscape - and the outstanding ecological values. We got three appeals. One dismissed and the other two combined. (By comparison, when the Badger-Two Medicine - a small part of the RMF - was fully leased in 1982, there were 52 appeals.) The appeals were based on a random assortment of claims, none of which were upheld. One claim by the appellants that I 'listened too much to the public.'

RMOGA filed the lawsuit, Independent Petroleum Producers Assoc. joined them. RMOGA went defunct. IPPA continued the suit and hired Mountain States Legal Foundation to represent them. The Federal District Court didn't buy any of their claims and since they were a different set of claims than those in the appeals, it was judged they didn't have standing. The judge told added that even if they did have standing, he still would have thrown the case out for lack of merit. Plaintiffs appealed to the 9th Circuit, which threw it out on all counts - including being arbitrary and capricious, and the sense of place emphasis.

Bottom line: the EIS was well-crafted, scientifically solid, and the public involvement was complete and comprehensive. The range of alternatives was appropriate, the No Action alternative is a legitimate choice, and sense of place can be used as a criterion (although I know of no other major decision that was based on it). The Forest Supervisor was the appropriate authority to make the decision since it's not a permanent ban, which only Congress can do.

© Gloria Flora 2003