When Gene Sentz co-founded Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front in 1977 his prospects of facing down the oil and gas industry were singularly bleak. Exxon and Chevron had made their intent to drill known and by 1981, the Lewis and Clark National Forest had opened up public lands along the Front for lease.
Large companies tend to declare their desired course with such command that its construction appears a foregone conclusion. In the shadow of such bulk ordinary citizens tend to submit instead of considering more difficult options. But a pondering schoolteacher in Choteau took up the fight. Thirty years later, the entire Rocky Mountain Front is protected from all new mineral leasing. Many say the Front has Gene Sentz to thank for that.
Sentz’s battle was waged with a typewriter, reams of paper, boxes of envelopes, and a meager budget for postage and coffee. But philosophically, the struggle required a particular combination of sensibility, patience, and persistence.
Gene had already contributed five years to the fight when he left for Nepal, to find and later marry an idealistic nurse named Linda Kirkland. In his absence, the entire Bob Marshall Wilderness was proposed for extensive seismographing, a scheme recalled in popular memory as the plan to “Bomb the Bob.” No sooner did the proposal go public than aerograms from South Asia begin to arrive in the mailbox of Representative Pat Williams. Those aerograms made it all the way to the floor of the House when Williams held them up to illustrate the pride that Montanans harbored for this common ground.
Upon their return, the Sentzes found the Bob unscathed, thanks to Representative Williams. However, the bombing was well underway in the non-wilderness lands of the Front country. It was then that Gene delivered a promise to his new wife and lifelong partner: he was hanging up his skates.
“Becky Tipler had organized a meeting,” Gene recollected. “She was living up there in Chuck Blixrud’s old cabin, a young oboe player who didn’t want to see a drill hole in her backyard. But I’d promised myself I wouldn’t get involved in that again.”
Gene would likely be the first to admit that even the most loyal partisans tire and lose hope, but patience and persistence had built a movement that continued to move even when Gene wouldn’t. But, he couldn’t stay away for long. He was pulled back into the ranks of revolt and by 1995 he had traded in his typewriter for a word processor.
When I first met Gene last spring he was on the verge of retirement after 27 years of teaching at the elementary level. His beard was white, his hunting cap worn, and his glasses were looming on a 65 year-old face. At the time, he was preoccupied with a recent essay he’d read on the computer-age erosion of children’s attention span. He lamented how the outdoors were being ignored by children, whose focus had acquired astounding dollar value in this age of highly personal, highly mobile entertainment. It was obviously a sorrow for him to end his career knowing that the corporate competition to mold a child into a consumer was perhaps outstanding among all historical predators of America’s youth.
No doubt, the perils of an attention deficit are tragedies with which Gene became well acquainted in his 30-year quest to protect the Front. His patience is fabled. Upon hearing of my move to Choteau, friends and neighbors in Helena would unfailingly offer the same advice, “Look up Gene Sentz, he’s been working on the Front forever.”
His entire disposition communicates a measured persistence that contrasts starkly with the impulsive thrusts that often characterize environmental campaigning.
Conversationally, he is both careful and meandering, and his sense of time is almost comically irreverent. He often asks Linda, “Wasn’t that about six years ago?” And Linda will scoff, “Try sixteen!”
So, it didn’t surprise me when Gene refused to celebrate immediately after Congress passed legislation that banned new mineral leasing on the Front. “I’m waiting for ol’ Bush to sign it,” he said. “Then I’ll celebrate.”
When the President finally did sign a very large bill to which our small amendment was attached, more than 200 people gathered in Great Falls to toast a 30-year struggle. What did Gene Sentz have to say? “Well, to me it was like a great game you decide to play, and try to win. It was fun.”
Guest writer Gabriel Furshong is a field organizer in Choteau with the Montana Wilderness Association.