CHOTEAU, Mont. — 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
the support of Montana's Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, buyout legislation has gone
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."
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.
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
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,
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times