The Rocky Mountain Front faces new oil-and-gas threat

  • Blackeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park

    Diane Sylvain
  • CHIEF MOUNTAIN: It's a tribal - and political - marker

    Hal Herring photo

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.

"This is a tremendous windfall for the tribe," Smith says.

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 centuries.

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 Canadian line.

Chasing the American Dream

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 members.

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, 10/13/97).

"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 do."

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 ignored.

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 compliance.

"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.

"They've 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."

The 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.

"I 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.

You can contact ...

* The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, Blackfeet Nation, P.O. Box 850, Browning, MT 59417;

* Jim Livingston with K-2 America, 435 4th Ave. S.W., Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3A8;

* Attorney Jack Tuholske, 401 N. Washington, Missoula, MT 59802.

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