Critics Fear Energy Plan Will Tame a Wild Land

Times Staff Writer

From behind her sunglasses, Gloria Flora's dark blue eyes were trained on the unfolding vastness thousands of feet beneath her. She paid little attention as the single-engine plane pitched and bucked in high winds above the limestone escarpments of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front.

Like the little plane, Flora was at full throttle, calling on all her charm and powers of persuasion to make a case to the state's Democratic candidate for governor for keeping oil and gas exploration out of the majestic landscape below.

"It's not comfy here. It doesn't have amenities. It's not easy to get to," she said, pointing to the wide-hipped buttes and mesas, affection filling her voice. "There's no cell phone service and the wind blows like hell. It's only the very hardy and the very lucky who live here."

A 140-mile stretch of largely unbroken country, tracing the Rockies from Helena north to the Canadian border, the front is part of the largest complex of U.S. wild lands outside Alaska.

Flora was doing what she does best: extolling the character of a place she put on the national political map by convincing the Clinton administration to make it off-limits to oil and gas exploration.

At that time, she was the U.S. Forest Service supervisor of the surrounding Lewis and Clark National Forest. Today, she's citizen Flora -- committed as ever, despite an angry parting with the Forest Service and a crippling car accident.

Her flaring cheekbones, waist-length hair and throaty voice belie a competitive drive that made her a force to reckon with during 22 years in the male-dominated Forest Service.

Yet, for all her talents, Flora may be on the brink of losing her battle to save a region that, as much as any, resembles the West that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark saw when they came through here 200 years ago.

At least three companies holding leases that predate Flora's decision are preparing to drill for natural gas deep inside the protected area, encouraged by rising gas prices, increasing demand and pending energy legislation that would give oil and gas companies tax breaks and other incentives that take some of the financial risk out of exploring.

With the Bush administration making a determined push to open wild lands to energy exploration, dormant leases on 400,000 acres of the front could spring to life. Petroleum engineers acknowledge that the extent of recoverable gas along the front is not known.

"Granted, there may only be a few days' supply of gas," said Gail Abercrombie, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Assn. "If we were to take all the wheat Montana produces, it doesn't come close to supplying the nation's needs. Does that mean we just quit farming wheat?"

Exploration by itself would not mar the landscape permanently. Full field production, on the other hand, could dramatically alter the complexion of the countryside, with drill pads, roads, pipelines, processing plants, traffic and people.

Flora has seen the effects just across the border in Canada, where oil and gas and related industrial development along the base of the Rockies in western Alberta have displaced elk and mountain sheep and greatly diminished the grizzly bear population.

Along the front on the U.S. side, virtually all of the animal species observed by Lewis and Clark remain. This is the only place in the lower 48 states where grizzlies still come down out of their mountain dens every spring and roam the plains, gorging on chokecherries and occasionally picking off a stray sheep or calf.

Yet its wildness isn't the front's only allure.

"It's a visceral reaction, really," said Bob Decker, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Assn.

"The continent drops off into ranches and a big sky," Decker said. "Drainages roll on for miles into public lands that are undisturbed. The waterways are undammed. The communities are small. There's a sense of openness. Things are clean and possible; there's room to move and you can talk to people. This is a place where every superlative is justified."

Stoney Burk is a typical example of the passions people hold for this land. Burk is an attorney in Choteau, calls himself a conservative, voted for President Bush and pledges, with his voice rising: "I will crawl 200 miles on my belly to save this front.

"I'm not an environmentalist; I've never liked people with long hair sitting in trees and smoking a pipe," he said. "But I would consider anyone who would violate this front my enemy. I guarantee you that if this thing goes through, there will be a lot of us lying down in front of bulldozers and not moving."

But this place, where the tabletop Great Plains crash headlong into the shins of the towering Rockies, contains deposits of natural gas that the industry and the Bush administration say are a key to securing the nation's energy independence.

The front forms the eastern edge of a much larger geologic formation: the Montana Thrust Belt, which underlies the western third of the state. How much gas is here is a matter of debate. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the area could contain as much as one-fourth of the nation's annual natural-gas consumption.

For Flora and other opponents of drilling, the question is why -- in an area as vast as the thrust belt -- must the industry drill in the least disturbed place?

"Why are they hellbent on drilling here with all the problems, restrictions and lack of public support?" Flora asked, shaking her head. "They think they can stick a pin in the vast landscape and find the one spot where there is gas? It's hard to understand."

Industry officials say they don't have a lot of alternatives to exploring the front. They say more than 90% of the thrust belt is closed to drilling.

Nonetheless, Flora hopes to entice them to go elsewhere. She is advocating a federal buyout of oil and gas leases, or an exchange in which leases would be traded for the right to explore elsewhere on federal land. It has been a hard sell.

Despite the support of Montana's Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, buyout legislation has gone nowhere.

As the supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in 1997, Flora decided that maintaining the primitive grandeur of the forest and its free-ranging wildlife had more value than the oil and gas the land might contain. She said no new energy leases could be granted for at least 10 years on about 350,000 acres of the 1.8-million-acre national forest, and she allowed only restricted exploration elsewhere in the forest.

It was an act of bureaucratic bravado that made her as many enemies as friends. There were, after all, many millions of protected acres in wilderness areas and nearby Glacier National Park. And who was she, the critics asked, to extend that protection -- a determination that is solely the province of Congress?

Flora responded that her moratorium allowed many activities, such as logging and grazing, that are prohibited in wilderness. But she also argued that the land covered by her moratorium was no less worthy of protection than the adjacent wilderness.

"If they can get in here," Flora said, her voice rising over the roar of the plane's engine, "they can get in anywhere."

Flora's presence raises the profile of the debate, but also its temperature. The former bureaucrat so enrages some Montanans that she once required a police escort to speak at a public forum addressing the need for civility in public discussion.

Flora, 48, has made a career of invalidating stereotypes. In the Forest Service's lumberjack culture, she was a singular presence. Flora's appearance suggested Earth Mother, but her management style screamed Type A.

One minute she draws on spiritual imagery to express her communion with these mountains; in another she displays a forensic command of the region's history, science and natural attributes

Critics were scornful of the language she used in her written decision to close the front to oil and gas. Preserving "a sense of place" was reason enough to bar development, Flora wrote.

"It was a real stop-the-show kind of decision," said Abercrombie of the Montana Petroleum Assn., which represents a $300-million-a-year industry in the state. "That touchy-feely kind of thing fits her philosophy. There's no way to work around somebody's 'sense of place' or to know what that means."

Bert Guthrie, who farms and ranches on 12,000 acres near Choteau, favors energy development and said as much to Flora in public meetings.

"She's a typical bureaucrat," Guthrie said. "She's getting paid and going on her merry way, getting accolades from the enviros, talking about being brave and all that. What has saved the Rocky Mountain Front are the natives that have lived here for the last 100 years and kept it as pristine as it is, not the Gloria Floras of the world."

But a newspaper in Missoula, Mont., suggested that a monument be erected in Flora's honor and gushed: "Montana's incomparable Rocky Mountain Front will endure as a monument to this Forest Service official's strength and vision."

Public comment solicited by the Forest Service in advance of Flora's decision ran 80% in favor of the moratorium.

Her ban on new energy leases withstood numerous court challenges -- including an appeal by oil and gas interests to the U.S. Supreme Court, which the court declined to hear. Nevertheless, the protections Flora put in place six years ago are vulnerable now.

In August, the Bush administration told federal land managers to remove bureaucratic and environmental restrictions to drilling in seven Western areas, including the Rocky Mountain Front.

Public opinion along the front is mixed. In a recent Teton County survey, 50% of respondents said drilling would be an economic blessing while 50% opposed it.

Mary Sexton, chairwoman of the Teton County Commission, said she has crunched every available number, seeking to parse the benefit to her rural, financially ailing county. She's come up with a best-case scenario of $20,000 in annual revenues to the county.

For all of her Indian jewelry and dusty boots, Flora began as an Easterner. Raised in Pennsylvania, she got her first look at the Rockies as a teenager on a family vacation.

The summer after graduating from Penn State with a degree in landscape architecture, Flora took her first job in the Forest Service, in 1977 in California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest, where she found herself at odds with the common logging practice of clear-cutting: chain-sawing every tree in huge swaths of the forest.

Her objection evolved into policy. "On my forest," she said, "the rule was, if the tree is older than you are, you have to come see me if you want to cut it."

As supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, Flora at first was inclined to go along with her predecessor's pro-drilling policies. But after months of public meetings revealed the impassioned anti-drilling sentiment of many residents, Flora changed her mind.

She insists that none of her superiors in Washington, D.C., advised against imposing the moratorium, but when her tenure in Montana ended, she was passed over for the plum job she sought in Wyoming's nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Her career ended abruptly in 1999 after she was assigned to a forest in northern Nevada and saddled with enforcing an unpopular road closing. The controversy led to threats against her and her staff. Flora resigned, angry at what she argued was a lack of official support and protection from her own agency.

Flora left the Forest Service in 1999, and with her husband, Marc, returned to Montana, settling on 25 acres outside Helena.

Two years ago, a car accident nearly made her an invalid. A man rammed her car head-on after losing control of his van on a mountain road.

As she lay crushed in her car, Flora, who had emergency medical training, reacted with typical sang froid, telling her rescuers how best to divert traffic and giving paramedics a clinical assessment of her pulverized right leg.

At first in a wheelchair, then hobbling with a cane that she shed this fall, Flora traveled around the country trying to rouse nationwide support for the front, still extolling its sense of place but also talking about the residents, whose vision of the front she had come to share.

One of them is Dupuyer rancher Karl Rappold, whose grandfather spent his first two years in Montana living under a wagon while he worked the family homestead.

Rappold, who is 51, knows there is natural gas under his 7,000 acres, but he says he has no interest in drilling for it.

He brags about the unspoiled land that he works on horseback, ground that has never known a wheel or been cut by a road. He tells of the wonder of watching grizzlies, pointing to where two young males entered the yard the day before, snuffling around for dog food.

Watching his grandson scramble into the cab of a tractor, the boy's little boots scraping on outsized fenders, Rappold said: "My grandfather and then my father took care of this land for me; I'm bound to take care of it for my kids and theirs. It's that simple."

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