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HELENA — New petroleum development on federal lands along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front would be prohibited permanently under language that Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., added Tuesday to the draft of an appropriations bill.

"It's clear that this is a critical area for habitat, recreation, agriculture and just to appreciate the majesty of Montana," Burns said in an apparent softening of his position on Front development.

In 2002 he said that tapping into oil and gas reserves there would be in the national interest. But Burns said Tuesday that he has "heard from groups across the spectrum … who are concerned about this area." The prohibition placed in the draft appropriations bill "strikes a commonsense balance that benefits all parties involved," he said.

Burns moved to prevent any new federal leasing for oil, natural gas or hard-rock mining projects on the Front, where the mountains meet the plains south of Glacier National Park. If existing leases expired or were traded, the places they cover would be exempt from new leases.

Environmental groups extoll the area's natural assets and say it is too sensitive a place for drilling.

In 2003 the Bush administration imposed a ban of at least four years on Front petroleum exploration, during a study.

Burns' language to shield the Front was placed in the draft of an appropriations bill for the Interior Department. Burns, who faces Democrat Jon Tester in the November election, is chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

In 2004 he met with representatives of an activist group, Save the Front, and encouraged members to look into use of private money for the purchase of petroleum leases from developers. Save the Front subsequently expressed concern about the reissuing of leases once they were bought by private groups.

"Burns felt since these private groups had done their part and put their money where their mouth is, he would introduce language to protect their efforts," according to a news release his office circulated Tuesday.

Burns said he expects the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve the draft bill this week. From there, it would go to the full Senate.

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