Drilling proposed in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine

Tribes and former federal officials fight to cancel energy leases on sacred land.

 

On the east side of Glacier National Park stands a 160,000-acre expanse of wild mountains, wetlands and meadows. Adjoining the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Badger-Two Medicine area is central to the tribe’s creation story and their Sun Dance, and home to grizzlies, wolves, wolverines and mountain goats.

Thirty years ago, Solonex LLC leased 6,200 acres in this part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest – and now the Louisiana-based company is pushing to start oil and gas exploration. All of the leases in the Badger-Two Medicine have been suspended since 1985 when the Blackfeet raised concerns that they were granted illegally, without tribal consultation, and that their development would harm water quality and wildlife habitat, and disrupt the tribes’ hunting, fishing, timbering, and cultural and religious uses. Most of those leases have since been surrendered or retired; about 18 remain, including Solonex’s.

Badger Creek in the Badger-Two Medicine area, where a company wants to revive a 30-year old oil and gas lease.
Blackfeet Nation

The decades-long delay in making a final call on the fate of the leases has frustrated not only the energy company, but a federal judge. Two years ago, Solonex filed a lawsuit to force a decision; that case was decided earlier in October, with the judge rejecting a timeline from the BLM and Forest Service that could have resulted in two more years of waiting while the agencies did more environmental study. The agencies now have until Nov. 23 to decide whether the lease suspension should continue and whether more review is needed; after that, they must either provide an accelerated schedule for allowing Solonex to move forward, or give detailed reasons for cancelling the leases.

The Blackfeet’s frustration has grown as well – in July, the tribe broke off formal negotiations with the federal government and Solonex, reports the Associated Press, stating that after three rounds of talks, it saw no reason to continue discussions.

Map of the Badger-Two Medicine area and the site of Solonex's lease.
Montana Wilderness Association
It’s unclear why Solonex is pursuing those leases now, given the low price of oil and gas, and the fact that the original application to drill cited a 5.5 to 7 percent chance that a well on the land would ever go into production, reports Montana Public Radio. But the company’s lawyer, with the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation,  claims the area has “tremendous potential for oil  and gas development.”

The tribe has asked Interior to cancel all of the remaining leases, and a broad-based movement in support of that request has been picking up steam since last fall: All four bands of the Blackfoot Confederacy, other tribal leaders in Montana and Wyoming, the National Congress of American Indians, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, several retired federal agency officials, and even the rock band Pearl Jam.

In late October, 19 retired Forest Service leaders, including former Chief Dale Bosworth, former Deputy Chief Jim Furnish, and two former supervisors of the Lewis and Clark, signed a letter asking Interior to heed the advice of the federal  Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which declared, “there is no possible mitigation to protect this unique landscape and its cultural significance except to cancel all leases to preclude development.”

Half a dozen former Glacier National Park superintendents, including Chas Cartwright, wrote an op-ed in the Billings Gazette pointing out that the leases are an anomaly, given the many conservation steps that have been taken in the area – including the passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the completion of the Montana Legacy Project, the passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, and the completion of a non-motorized travel plan for the Lewis and Clark. They also note that other leases on Glacier’s western boundary, granted under the same analysis and review procedures as those in the Badger-Two Medicine, were long ago found to violate the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and were struck down by the courts. Their letter concludes with a plea for cancellation: “Industrial energy development of this world-class resource would represent an intolerable assault to the ecological and cultural values of Glacier National Park, as well as to the Blackfeet people.”

Update: On Nov. 23, 2015, the Department of the Interior announced that it would cancel the Solonex lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area.

 Jodi Peterson is a senior editor at High Country News.