NOV 19, 2016 08:17 AM PST

Blackfeet Nation Pushes Back Drilling on Sacred Lands

For over 10,000 years, the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park in Montana has provided strength, subsistence and cultural identity for members of the Blackfeet Nation. The Blackfeet believe that their people were created among the mountains and springs that rise from where Badger Creek and the Two Medicine River trace their headwaters. But, like so many other native lands, these peaceful landscapes are threatened by the oil and gas industry.
The  present day Blackfeet Nation  inhabits a fraction of the millions of acres of  their original tribal land . The final land cession of the 19th century occurred in 1895. The  "ceded strip"  is now part of Glacier National Park.
According to Earthjustice, an organization that extends legal aid to environmental causes, in the 1980s the Reagan administration issued 47 oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area to oilmen for $1 per acre. The leases were granted without tribal consultation, review of significant cultural values or proper evaluation of environmental impact—all required by federal law—and therefore violate both the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

Since then many companies and leaseholders have voluntarily given up their leases due to  a moratorium on any new oil and gas leases along the Rocky Mountain Front, (including the Badger-Two Medicine area) the Forest Service initiated in 1997. Nevertheless, several leases still remain. One of those leaseholders is the Solenex company in Louisiana. On November 23, 2015, the Interior Department announced its plans to cancel the Solenex lease. Good news, but not quite complete. Earthjustice reports the latest update: “Solenex has challenged the Interior Department’s lease cancellation decision and is asking a federal court to reinstate its lease and authorize immediate road construction and oil and gas drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area. Representing Blackfeet tribal traditionalists and local, regional and national conservation groups, Earthjustice is opposing Solenex’s arguments.”

Yet there is more reason for hope. This past week the Blackfeet People celebrate as The Interior Department announced on Wednesday a settlement with Devon Energy for the cancellation of leases in Montana for oil and gas drilling on lands considered sacred by the Blackfeet Tribe. The Washington Post reports that under the terms of the cancellation, Devon is entitled to a refund for all bids and other payments totaling $206,058. Half of that amount will come from a Treasury Department account that receives royalties from onshore oil and gas development and half will come from the state of Montana, which also receives royalty payments. Because the land was never developed and the area remains undisturbed, Devon does not need to pay for any reclamation.

“This is the right action to take on behalf of current and future generations,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on the department’s Web site. She said it would protect the region’s “rich cultural and natural resources and recognizes the irreparable impacts that oil and gas development would have on them.”

The settlement comes as the Obama administration seeks to wrap up outstanding issues and as Native Americans in nearby North Dakota are protesting to block the construction of an oil pipeline just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. With the Solenex cancellation and the Devon retirement, only two oil and gas leases remain in the region.

The Blackfeet Nation issued the following statement: “Today, the Blackfeet People have reason to rejoice. We thank Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, Deputy Secretary of Interior Mike Connor, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Butch Blazer, for helping bring justice to the Blackfeet people by cancelling a controversial drilling lease in our sacred Badger-Two Medicine area.Our fight isn’t over. We encourage the U.S. Government to continue to take a hard look at the remaining leases which still threaten our sacred lands.”
Alpine meadow overlooking Two Medicine Valley. Photo: Earthjustice
The nation lists their reasoning for opposing drilling on their sacred lands as such:
1) The leases were granted illegally in 1982 without tribal consultation.
2) Energy development would negatively impact and interfere with the Blackfeet people's lands, and the use of it for cultural, historical and religious purposes.
3) Drilling would compromise the water quality and disrupt extraordinary habitat for rare and sensitive wildlife species.
4) Reserved hunting, fishing and timbering rights would be compromised.
5) Fracking the “Backbone of the World” would desecrate both the landscape and the cultural identity of present and future generations of Blackfeet people.
6) Roads, trucking bridges and well pads would disturb sacred lands in the heart of the Badger-Two Medicine.

Sources: Earthjustice, The Washington Post, Badger Two-Medicine, Wilderness
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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