The following op ed appeared in the January 13 Billings Gazette under my byline:
Guest opinion: Citizens can make difference in Beartooth development
A Jan. 3 guest opinion paints a gloomy picture of the inevitability of oil drilling along the Beartooth Front. “Once you see the first well being drilled,” Christopher Eckoff says, “it is too late to stop the oil industry.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Recent Montana history shows things can be different here.
The process Eckoff describes is exactly what happened in the Bakken. Like many Western states, Montana has laws that are favorable to mineral, oil and gas extraction. But there are excellent examples of organized citizens standing their ground to make sure that companies aren’t allowed to ruin the economy, environment and quality of life in our communities at the expense of a quick buck.
Bozeman Pass zoning
Perhaps the best example occurred in Gallatin County. In 1999, citizens along the Bozeman Pass experienced a situation similar to the one Carbon and Stillwater Counties face today. A New Jersey company announced plans to drill more than 100 coalbed methane wells on 18,000 acres of leased land. In response, an active group of citizens moved forward on a plan to create special zoning districts where coalbed methane drilling was proposed.
In 2002 the Gallatin County Commission created an emergency zoning district which banned the development of coalbed methane for two years, and in 2005 they adopted a permanent zoning district to regulate coalbed methane development.
Today the Bozeman Pass area remains unsullied because Gallatin County developed a conditional use permitting system in several special zoning districts. Permits are granted only if conditions exist that preserve the community. These include evidence of land owner’s consent, plans to protect property values and water quality, a detailed plan to reclaim all disturbed areas at the completion of drilling, and monthly monitoring by a state of Montana licensed and bonded environmental engineer.
Good Neighbor pact
The Stillwater Mine Good Neighbor Agreement, the only legally binding contract between a local community and a hardrock mine, is another example. Because citizens of Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties stood their ground, the Stillwater and Boulder Rivers remain pristine, traffic is controlled, pollutants are managed at the mining site, and there is an ongoing dialogue between the mine and the community. Today, as the mine is proposing expansion of activities, the community is engaged and negotiating about how the expansion takes place.
These examples prove that natural resource extraction isn’t an inevitable choice between short-term economic growth and long-term protection of the environment. When citizens in Montana engage with each other to develop creative solutions to complex issues like the proposed drilling along the Beartooth Front, they serve the interests of the community, not big corporations.
David Katz has been visiting a family home in Stillwater County for 40 years, and lives there part-time when not in California. He blogs on Beartooth issues at davidjkatz.wordpress.com.