Trail through Idaho and western Montana, branching onto State Highway 200 through the beautiful valley of the Blackfoot—made famous by Norman Maclean’s fly-fishing novella, A River Runs Through It—and then hitting Route 287 about 40 miles south of Choteau and heading north up the Rocky Mountain Front. It was hard to imagine how the driver of a vehicle half again as long as a New York City block proposed to navigate the hairpin turn around the handsome 1906 cut-stone Teton County courthouse, where a Nativity scene had just been erected on the front lawn. But assuming he managed it, he would then steer his load up Choteau’s main street, insulated in his heated cab against the glacial cold, past the two dinosaur statues and the ice cream parlor and the tiny art deco Roxy Theater (which, appropriately enough, was screening a movie called Frozen), past Grizzly Sports and the Elk Country Grill, until he could pick up his pace again on the outskirts of town. From there he would angle away from the jagged peaks of the Front, taking a hard right across the Blackfeet Reservation and then passing two giant wind farms and the new transmission line that carries their power to markets hundreds of miles away. Finally reaching the interstate, he would cross the tracks of the BNSF railroad, whose mile-long unit trains are carrying ever-larger consignments of oil from the booming Bakken field of North Dakota and eastern Montana to refineries on the West Coast, before presenting his paperwork at the Canadian border near the sacred Sweet Grass Hills and finally arriving, 500 miles farther on, at his destination in the devastated boreal forests of central Alberta. Oil fields and oil trains, fracking rigs and megaloads, wind farms and power lines: Montana is being steadily redefined as a nodal point in our “all of the above” energy boom. Eager for tax revenues to boost a fragile local economy, some people in Choteau would like to see the drill rigs move into the pristine lands along the Front. Others— ranchers, hunters, and backcountry outfitters for the most part—have spent years fighting to keep the fossil fuel industry away from the Front’s vast national forests and federally protected wilderness. Seventy miles north, in Browning, the hub of the Blackfeet country, sentiments are similarly divided. Crushed by poverty and struggling with 70 percent unemployment, the tribe has leased almost the whole of its 3,000-square-mile reservation to oil companies, right up to the edge of Glacier National Park. Many tribal leaders crave the potential flow of royalties from the oil wells. Others felt that way until they were spooked by the recent arrival of hydraulic fracturing and its attendant risks. Others still would prefer to harness the power of the winds that howl down from the Canadian prairie. What is happening along the Rocky Mountain Front, in other words, is what happens whenever big energy arrives in small places. It of4 2 onearth
veteran fighter For Gene Sentz, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is the culmination of a 40-year effort.
fers a devil’s bargain: a choice between the lure of prosperity and the preservation of place. It pits neighbor against neighbor, family against family, and whatever the eventual outcome, a lot of people are probably going to be unhappy.
an Lindseth is the joint owner of a company
called Montana Overthrust Management. As that name implies, the story of the Front is rooted in geology, which shapes our social and economic affairs as surely as chemistry and biology determine our physical existence. More than 80 million years ago, islands as large as Japan slammed into what is now North America, corrugating the earth’s crust, pushing and compressing a layer cake of rock 300 miles long and four miles thick into present-day Montana and Alberta. All this compression and folding and faulting built up what geologists call an imbricate thrust system, in which the strata are piled up on one another, overlapping like scales on a fish. In some places, oddly, the oldest rocks have ended up on top, a reversal of the normal geologic order. After the eastward movement of this enormous rock pile ground to a halt, erosion fashioned the mountains into the unique landscape we see today: ragged, windswept peaks and pinnacles, walls and reefs, all cut by canyons and deeply scoured glacial valleys, rising almost perpendicular from the prairie. We call it the Rocky Mountain Front; the Blackfeet call it the Backbone of the World. Deep beneath the surface, deposits of oil and natural gas lie trapped