BABB, Mont. - Chief Mountain, a 9,000-foot outlying peak west of here, stands like a boundary marker on the Rocky Mountain Front, where glacier-carved peaks meet rolling plains. It also marks the political intersection of Glacier National Park's eastern boundary with the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
A recent plan by the Blackfeet
tribal business council to lease land around the mountain for oil
and gas exploration has put the mountain at the center of a "war of
philosophies," according to former Blackfeet business council
member Marlene Bear-Walter.
The tribe signed an
agreement last winter allowing the Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based
K-2 Corporation to explore for oil and natural gas on 290,000 acres
of reservation land surrounding the mountain. The deal could yield
up to $100 million if recoverable oil and gas are found, according
to geologist Wayne Smith. Smith worked for the tribe until he left
last year to become a consultant for K-2.
is a tremendous windfall for the tribe," Smith
Marlene Bear-Walter disagrees. "It is
inappropriate," she says. "I am against any kind of development
that would compromise the ecosystem there."
Bear-Walter and other opponents argue that Chief
Mountain and the Front are sacred ground, and that oil and gas
development would harm one of the wildest environments left in
Montana. The drilling area is home to grizzly bears, wolverines,
fishers, wolves and an enormous elk herd. The Blackfeet have
visited Chief Mountain for fasting and vision quests for
To appease Blackfeet traditionalists,
the tribal business council created a four-mile "buffer" around the
mountain, where no exploration will be allowed. But K-2 is moving
ahead with its exploration north, south and east of the mountain
along the border of Glacier Park between Saint Mary and the
No one denies that the Blackfeet
Nation is badly in need of cash. The Tribal Government is operating
on less than 50 percent of its usual budget, and 80 percent of
reservation residents are unemployed. Oil and gas production on
existing fields has been falling for the past decade, and much of
the more productive rangeland is owned or leased by non-tribal
Still, many Blackfeet say their harsh,
out-of-the way homeland has become valuable simply for its beauty
and its wealth of wildlife and wild places. They agree with the
Gloria Flora, former supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National
Forest, who turned away oil and gas companies that wanted to drill
along the Rocky Mountain Front south of the reservation (HCN,
"The animals that live in that area
are worth much more than any short-term economic gain," says former
business council vice-chairman Tom Thompson. "I think the
exploration on the Front is politically damaging to us as a tribe.
It makes us look like we don't care about our environment. And we
Two Blackfeet groups, the Pikuni
Traditionalists' Association and the Kaa Mo Taan, or "circle of
protection," have filed suit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs,
which approved the deal with K-2, to halt the exploration. The
suit, filed by attorney Jack Tuholske of Missoula, alleges that the
agreement was approved without any environmental review, and that
Blackfeet cultural and religious interests were
There is some disagreement over whether
the Blackfeet Tribe, as a sovereign nation, is bound by federal
environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act
(NEPA). But any deal approved by a federal agency such as the
Bureau of Indian Affairs must be in
"We are so far out of compliance with
NEPA on this that we could all get sued - the whole tribe," says
Kaa Mo Taan spokesman Calvin Weatherwax. "There was a complete lack
of public participation in the process and there is a complete lack
of accountability for what may result.
given us a four-mile buffer around sacred sites on Chief Mountain,"
he says, "but that puts the exploration right in the middle of the
elk migration path, and in the middle of the best big game hunting
on the reservation. We can't just disregard the places where our
elders fasted, prayed, where they are resting."
Business council member Jim Kennedy says
Weatherwax's claims are unfounded. "A public meeting concerning the
exploration agreement was held in Browning, and we had one person
attend," he says. "This deal has been under negotiation for almost
three years and it has never been a secret."
tribe is doing a full environmental review before any drilling
takes place. "We don't have to do that, but we choose to," says
Kennedy. "If we see environmental problems during the course of
this thing, we have the right to shut it down.
am a tribal employee, with a mandate to responsibly produce revenue
and jobs for the Blackfeet people, and that is what I have tried to
do here," he adds. "A lot of tribal members would like to have the
chance to chase the American dream, just as other Americans do."
Hal Herring writes
from Corvallis, Montana.
can contact ...
* The Blackfeet Tribal Business
Council, Blackfeet Nation, P.O. Box 850, Browning, MT
* Jim Livingston with K-2 America, 435 4th
Ave. S.W., Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3A8;
Attorney Jack Tuholske, 401 N. Washington, Missoula, MT