By SUSAN GALLAGHER/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., says he is open to the possibility of trading natural gas leases on the Rocky Mountain Front, Montana's rugged landscape embroiled in the debate about meeting the nation's energy demand.
Burns made the statement when he met with representatives of the Montana Wilderness Association at his Washington, D.C., office.
Burns could not be reached directly for comment Thursday, but spokesman J.P. Donovan confirmed the senator made the statement to the Wilderness Association representatives.
''I don't know that he has been officially unreceptive (to lease trades) before,'' Donovan said. ''I don't know that the question was presented before.''
If Congress approved the trading of Front gas leases, leaseholders would swap their rights for federally owned leases elsewhere, not necessarily in Montana.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has introduced measures that would direct the Interior Department to study the feasibility of lease trading.
Baucus, who opposes drilling along the Rocky Mountain Front, presented his proposal last year both as an amendment to the now-stalled energy bill in Congress, and as separate legislation.
He said Thursday that Burns' position improves the chance of passing ''appropriate legislation ... to protect the Front.''
''This is an opportunity for Conrad and I to see if we can work out some joint language,'' Baucus said. Lease exchanges offer a way to protect the Front and the rights of leaseholders, he said.
''The ultimate control lies with the people that own those leases,'' Donovan added.
The energy bill would open the way for oil and gas development along the Front and other lands in the West.
Burns ''doesn't like the idea of locking away something that we may need down the road, but he's not advocating punching holes in the ground right now,'' Donovan said.
The Wilderness Association and some other groups say the Front, the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains roughly from Rogers Pass along Montana 200 to Glacier National Park, is so sensitive and valuable environmentally that it should be off-limits to gas development. Proponents of gas projects say they would not endanger the environment.
Last week the Wilderness Association sent four people to Washington to lobby against development on the Front.
''Senator Burns gave us an open invitation to visit his office if we don't like what's happening'' in the debate, said Karl Rappold of Dupuyer, a Republican rancher and one of the association's delegates.
In 1997, former Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora made the Front off-limits to future oil and gas drilling, saying the value of the land in its natural state surpassed its value as a source of fuel.
No new drilling leases have since been offered, but last year federal officials announced they would study developing leases established prior to Flora's ban.
The Bush administration's energy plan identifies the Rocky Mountain Front as an important source of natural gas.