By Terri Hansen
The Blackfoot Confederacy is vigorously opposing proposed energy development in the sacred Badger–Two Medicine area, located at the wild intersection of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana.
Home to the Blackfeet origin story, the Badger–Two Medicine cradles sacred mountains with powerful names such as Morning Star, Scarface and Spotted Eagle—names drawn straight from the beginnings of Blackfeet culture.
It’s a place of power, where America’s prairie runs headlong into the Rocky Mountains, and it is known as Miistakis, the Backbone of the World, where the Blackfeet began. This is the place of the Sun Dance, the Medicine Lodge, the wolf and wolverine, and the grizzly bear.
“It’s a wild, undeveloped landscape in a very sensitive area of wildlife habitat, grizzly bears, wolverines, elk, native trout and a major recreational area for hiking, horse packing, hunting,” said Tim Preso, an attorney with the ecology law firm Earthjustice.
The public interest environmental law firm is representing Blackfeet alliances, and environmental and wildlife organizations who have applied for intervenor status in U.S. District Court to oppose a challenge brought by Solenex LLC, a company seeking to develop a 6,200-acre federal oil and gas lease in the region.
“It’s the site of many foundational stories about [the Blackfeet] people, and it’s an active site for gathering of medicinal herbs for traditional religious ceremonies,” Preso said. “For that reason the region has been recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Historic Preservation Act as of immense importance to the Blackfeet Nation.”
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a 6,247-acre lease to Louisiana oilman Sidney Longwell, the owner of Solenex LLC in 1982. The Forest Service (USFS) and BLM approved the permit to drill in 1985 over the objections of Blackfeet tribal members, wildlife biologists, hunters, and Montanans from across the state.
In 1993, the secretary of the Interior suspended activity on the leases until a cultural resources inventory could be completed. In 1997, the USFS prohibited new oil and gas leases on National Forest lands along the Front—including Badger-Two Medicine—for 10 years.
The USFS determined that the TCD should encompass areas farther north, including the proposed drilling site in 2006. That same year a law introduced by then Senator Conrad Burns, R-Montana established the region as a Traditional Cultural District.
“The government issued orders that suspended any oil development, but it did not stop re-leases,” said Preso. Some 18 leases remain.
Longwell sued secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in June 2013. His company, Solenex LLC, demanded immediate approval by a federal judge to order the government to lift the suspension so that he could gain access for his drill rigs. He plans miles of roads, trucker bridges across sacred mountain rivers, well pads and the disturbance of many acres at the very heart of the Traditional Cultural District.
Longwell could not be reached. Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) represents Longwell in the lawsuit. MSLF did not respond to our request for comment. In a September 22, 2014 news release, William Perry Pendley, president of MSLF stated, “A 30-year delay is per se unreasonable, the government’s conduct is illegal, and it has no excuse.”
The Blackfeet people are joined in their struggle for cultural sovereignty by the Blackfoot Confederacy (four Tribes and First Nations from Montana and Alberta) as well as by the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council (all 17 Tribes from 11 reservations in those two states) in demanding protections of their homelands and lifeways in proclamations made in late October.
They are insisting that the Interior Department cancel illegal oil and gas leases in that area. Removing the leases and protecting the Badger–Two Medicine, according to the coalition of tribes, is the only remedy.
The stakes are high, given the region’s millennia of importance to the Blackfeet people, who have consistently opposed energy development throughout the 130,000-acre wildlands. That opposition was codified through a 2004 Blackfoot Confederacy proclamation stating the tribe “will not consent and will not approve any energy development within the Badger–Two Medicine and will vigorously oppose any proposals for such development.”
“This proclamation by the Confederacy shows clearly that this is not just an important issue for the Blackfeet, but for Indian Country,” said Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray in a statement.
A letter sent last month to Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council stated, “Should this company [Solenex] prevail, any short-term private-industry profit from energy development will irrevocably change the Blackfeet’s ancient right to the natural capacity, power and ability of the land, including its plants, animals and the region’s pristine and isolated nature.”
The tribal coalition acknowledged the importance of energy development both in and around Indian country, and stressed that they have supported many permitted oil and gas projects. Of the thousands of industrial projects approved in the intermountain region, the vast majority have received no complaint, criticism or challenge. The Badger–Two Medicine is the exception—and has been the focus of intense debate for more than three decades.
The National Parks Conservation Association, the Montana Wilderness Association, and the Wilderness Society have also filed for intervener status in the Earthjustice lawsuit.
“We will stand with the Blackfeet people to protect this place, to provide as much help as we can provide to ensure their voices are heard,” Preso said.
A version of this story appeared in the Indian Country Today Media Network.