The U.S. Department of the Interior announced its aim to cancel a contentious oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area, a landscape that connects the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Glacier National Park and is considered a sacred cultural reserve by the Blackfeet Nation.
In a court-ordered response filed Nov. 23, attorneys for the Interior Department submitted a decision hailed by tribal leaders, conservation groups and political leaders as a “critical step forward” in the pursuit of furnishing permanent protections on the region.
The decision follows an earlier recommendation by the U.S. Forest Service that energy exploration on the 165,000-acre parcel would irreparably damage the area’s cultural and historic significance.
“Badger-Two Medicine is too sacred to develop,” said Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation Tribal Council. “We’re grateful this administration has taken a critical step toward permanent protection of this site that is like a church – a divine sanctuary – to our people.”
The court filing indicates the government intends to complete the lease-cancellation process by Dec. 11.
“The Secretary of the Interior has inherent authority, under her general managerial power over public lands, to cancel leases issued in violation of a statute or regulation,” according to the filing.
Although the Bureau of Land Management has not completed its decision-making process in the case, it has tentatively concluded the lease was issued without properly complying with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, officials stated in the report to the court.
While the decision is significant, Blackfeet leaders note that the fight to permanently protect the site is not over, saying they hoped Monday’s announcement marked the “beginning of the end” but that work remains before the leases are canceled “once and for all.”
“The government has absolutely made the right decision and begun to right a wrong that was done to our people decades ago,” said Barnes. “But we know that corporate interests are unlikely to back down from the fight and neither are we. We won’t end our battle until Badger-Two Medicine is permanently protected from oil and gas development.”
The leases in contention are held by Sidney Longwell, of the Louisiana-based Solenex LLC, which has sued in an effort to lift the suspension and fast track drilling on the 6,200-acre oil and gas lease it acquired in 1982.
Many other companies with leases granted around the same time have retired their rights or moved them elsewhere.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon previously denied Solenex’s request to immediately lift the suspension, but he ordered the government to come up with a timeline to end the lengthy, years-long delay, which he decried as unreasonable.
»»» Click here to view a map of the Badger-Two Medicine area.
Longwell’s attempt to explore the area for oil and gas has been stymied by lawsuits from environmental groups, and, most recently, by a review of the impacts drilling would have on the area, which is designated a Blackfeet Traditional Cultural District, located in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
William Perry Pendley, an attorney with the Mountain States Legal Foundation who is representing Solenex, said the government’s argument lacks merit and that the notion that the leases were issued illegally is “insane.”
“We have already told the court that we believe the Secretary of the Interior has no authority to cancel these leases and we will certainly argue it again,” Pendley said. “To suggest that after all of this effort, after all the time and money invested in studying this to death, that somehow the law was violated, I just think it is insane. No reasonable person could make that argument.”
Solenex has 10 days to file a response.
Earlier this year, the Blackfeet Nation launched a national campaign calling for the cancellation of oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. In April, Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet Nation, wrote President Barack Obama asking him to end the 30-year fight by cancelling the leases.
“Badger-Two Medicine is our land, it is everything to us,” Old Person said. “Many years ago, our ancestors turned down payment for this area that is still the best traditional area that we have to hunt and gather medicine.”
Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester have also joined the bloc of Badger-Two Medicine supporters urging lease cancellation, as has Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Also joining the Blackfeet in opposing industrialization of the Badger-Two Medicine are the National Congress of American Indians, 18 other tribes from western states, all three Glacier County Commissioners, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, six former Glacier Park superintendents, and 19 former U.S. Forest Service leaders.
Tester, an early advocate of lease cancellation, has sent letters to both Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Vilsack to spur a decision.
In a statement immediately following the decision, Tester again echoed the tribes’ support for lease cancellation.
“For too long the oil and gas leases in Badger-Two Medicine have caused uncertainty in this pristine landscape,” he stated. “I applaud all of the folks in Browning and across Montana who have worked so hard on this issue.”