Crow Indian historian Howard Boggess believes the rock art that graces the sandstone cliffs of Weatherman Draw marks the historic "Valley of the Shields" as a "place of peace" where chiefs and warriors retreated for vision quests. The art likely represents a multitude of ethnic groups who traveled through this historic migratory corridor in south-central Montana.
But since 1993, oil companies have been more interested in what this area may have underground. This May, Denver, Colo.-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. got permission from the Bureau of Land Management to drill an exploratory oil well and grade an access road in the valley.
"They are being disrespectful to all Native Americans and have no respect toward ancient things," says Bill Redfield, coordinator of the Crow Tribe's Economic Development Program. The ten tribes opposed to the project are joined by a bevy of archaeologists, historians and environmentalists.
Mary Piper of the Sierra Club says the project will increase the area's visibility, leaving archaeological sites open to vandals. "The road is what will be the nail in the coffin," she says. Piper believes that if oil is found, Anschutz will want to put in more wells and a pipeline. She blames the BLM for not considering impacts of future development.
"We only review the action that is submitted," explains Tom Lonnie, the Montana BLM Deputy State Director. The permit process would begin again if Anschutz finds oil and wants to develop the site, he says. Lonnie believes vandalism to the rock art will be made less likely by a gate on the access road and a 24-hour security guard at the drilling site.
The issue has attracted the attention of Democrats on Capitol Hill, who recently grilled Interior Secretary Gale Norton over the lease given to Anschutz. The corporation's owner, Philip Anschutz, is one of the nation's wealthiest men and a major GOP contributor. Opponents will appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals by June 21.