Everyone from the Blackfeet Tribe to Montana sportsmen is heaving a sigh of relief in the wake of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision to cancel a controversial oil and gas drilling lease in the sacred Badger-Two Medicine region.
Attorneys for Interior said in court filings on November 23 that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had “failed to fully consider the effects of oil and gas development on cultural resources, including religious values and activities” when they okayed the lease on 6,200 acres in 1982, according to the Associated Press. Part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine region borders Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It’s the site of the Blackfeet creation story and thus is a longstanding source of spiritual energy.
Lawyers for Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which holds that lease, immediately told AP that the company would challenge a cancelation.
The decision drew an immediate outpouring of gratitude from the numerous parties—including 19 tribes on both sides of the U.S.–Canada border—that had urged Interior to nix the lease. The Blackfeet Tribe, whose reservation abuts Badger-Two Medicine, specifically thanked President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for their work to preserve the region. Senator John Tester also garnered thanks.
“The Blackfeet Nation is grateful to President Obama, Secretary Jewell, and Secretary Vilsack for joining us in seeking permanent protection of the Badger-Two Medicine and respecting the sacred lands and culture of the Blackfeet,” said a statement from Badger-Two Medicine, a group formed to keep industrialization out of the pristine wilderness. “Together we can finally protect the Badger-Two Medicine.”
The lease was granted to Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, without tribal consultation during the tenure of President Ronald Reagan. It was subsequently suspended as the decision became more and more contentious. In 2013 the company sued officials at several federal agencies, including Jewell and other Interior Department and USDA officials, to try and force a decision.
Besides the tribes, numerous environmental and sports-fishing and hunting groups had urged Interior to cancel the lease. So too did the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency charged with promoting responsible stewardship of historical resources that was established by the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. Tasked with analyzing the potential effect of such mining on Badger-Two Medicine, the council said the proposed damage to the Traditional Cultural Area (TCD), as the sacred region is labeled, could not be mitigated.
“The Badger-Two Medicine TCD is of premier importance to the Blackfeet Tribe in sustaining its religious and cultural traditions,” the council said in a report issued on September 21. “The proposed gas exploration and development would introduce activities and intrusions incompatible with the TCD and its unique qualities.”
The infrastructure and activities would have rendered the Blackfeet’s sacred space unusable, the council said.
“Since the Hall Creek area of the TCD is associated with Blackfeet hunting, Blackfeet stories, Blackfeet power, and Blackfeet prayers/fasting/vision questing, anything that disrupts the visual natural setting, interrupts meditation, or affects the feeling of power in the area will affect the associated current traditional uses of the area by the Blackfeet,” the council said. “This decreased ability for the Blackfeet to use this area for traditional cultural practices would also indirectly reduce the Blackfeet’s ability to identify themselves as Blackfeet. It would make the associated power of the area less suitable by decreasing its effectiveness and accessibility to traditional practitioners. Further, any negative effects to the associated power in this portion of the district would also indirectly affect the power of the entire district since it is all interconnected in the Blackfeet worldview.”
Though Solonex had promised to minimize ecological damage and remediate anything that did happen, the council said that was not enough.
“Although Solenex has expressed willingness to commit to and implement mitigation measures, such measures would be wholly insufficient to resolve adverse effects to the qualifying characteristics of the TCD,” the council said in its report.
This was enough to spur Vilsack to convey similar sentiments, agreeing that the Solonex lease “will pose adverse effects to the TCD in ways that cannot be fully mitigated,” he wrote in his own letter to Jewell dated October 30.
“Based on this information gained through the full consideration of the spiritual and cultural significance of the Badger-Two Medicine TCD, the Forest Service’s determination of adverse effects, ACHP’s final comments, changes in land management priorities and consideration of Solenex LLC’s comments, I find that the balance of considerations weigh in favor of not lifting the suspension of operations and production,” he wrote. “Therefore, I recommend that you take action as you deem consistent with your statutory and regulatory authorities to cancel the Solenex lease.”
For the same reasons, the ACHP also recommended terminating the remaining 17 leases in the 132,000-acre region, most of them held by Devon Energy of Oklahoma, according to AP, quoting Forest Service officials. Solonex has 10 days to respond, while Interior said its process could be finalized by December 11.
“The proposed gas exploration and development would introduce activities and intrusions incompatible with the TCD and its unique qualities,” the ACHP said.
Sportsmen from Montana also expressed relief at the cancelation. Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Wildlife Federation, Helena Hunters and Anglers, Hellgate Hunters & Anglers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Wild Sheep Foundation issued a joint statement through Backcountry Hunters.
“The cold, clean headwaters of the Badger-Two Medicine are critical habitat for native cutthroat trout surviving east of the Continental Divide,” said Dan Short, a Flathead Valley angler and former chairman of Montana Trout Unlimited, in the statement. “These sources of pristine water will only grow more valuable in the future.”
In addition it’s not just about the one region, the groups noted.
“The benefits of conserving the Badger-Two Medicine extend far beyond that particular habitat,” said David Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation in Helena. “Everyone in Montana who appreciates wild country, herds of elk and a mountainside with a grizzly on it stands to gain.”