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HELENA — Republican Sen. Conrad Burns unveiled a plan Tuesday to ban any new oil and gas leases along the Rocky Mountain Front, a change from the senator's previous position.

Burns' plan, attached to next year's spending bill for the Department of Interior, has already passed the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which Burns heads. It is headed to the full committee later this week.

In 2002, Burns said it's in the national interest to tap oil and gas reserves and said the estimated 1.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas thought to lie beneath the Front may not seem like a lot "until you need it."

In a statement released Tuesday, Burns said he has heard from number of groups who oppose drilling there.

"It's clear this is a critical area for habitat, recreation, agriculture, and just to appreciate the majesty of Montana," Burns said in a written statement.

The measure would not affect existing oil and gas leases along the Front, but it stipulates that if any of those leases are sold back to the government, donated or purchased by conservation groups or another third party, the leases could never be offered for sale again.

The effort stiffens a 1997 moratorium on oil and gas leases that Gloria Flora, then supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, instituted on all Forest Service lands along the Front. The federal Bureau of Land Management has also laid down a moratorium on new leases on BLM lands along the Front.

Roy Jacobs, a Choteau taxidermist, praised Burns for his efforts and said the measure is part of a broader effort by the Coalition to Protect the Front, a local group, to buy existing leases and protect the Front from drilling forever.

"I totally believe this is the best thing for Montana and the nation," Jacobs said. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

Jacobs, a spokesman for the group and a lifetime Choteau resident, said the coalition had been meeting with energy companies about buying their leases to protect the areas. They also contacted groups with money to buy the leases.

"But nobody was going to buy the leases unless we could get withdrawal," he said.

Without some kind of permanent withdrawal of existing leases, the government could offer the leases again even after private conservation groups bought the originals.

Members of the group first started meeting with Burns in 2004.

Jacobs said he didn't think Burns' measure is "election-year politics."

"I think it's coming from wanting to do the right thing," he said.

Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, has also been pushing to protect the Front and has advocated buying out existing leaseholders.

Burns has said he does not support using tax money to buy out the leases.

"There are many steps in the process, and Senator Burns' bill is yet another step," said Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser. "Max welcomes Burns to the fight."

Burns' announcement came the same day the national League of Conservation Voters endorsed his Democratic challenger, state Senate President Jon Tester. The group also released its list of lawmakers with the worst environmental voting records, dubbed the "Dirty Dozen," which included Burns.

Burns has a 4 percent rating over his career from the group, which tracks lawmakers' votes on environmental and conservation issues.

Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Tester's campaign, called Burns' efforts a "shameless election-year conversion."

"Montanans should not trust that this is a long-term position for Senator Burns to hold, considering his campaign is being run with nearly half a million dollars in oil and gas company contributions," he said.