U.S. Sen. Jon Tester joined the Blackfeet Nation Friday in calling on the federal government to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area from private industrialization, adding his voice to an unprecedented alliance of American Indian tribal nations urging the government to cancel existing oil and gas leases in the pristine region.
Tester sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging them to rescind the energy leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, which is sacred to the Blackfeet Tribe and one of the Montana’s most pristine outdoor areas.
“This area has unique cultural, historical, spiritual, and recreational significance to the people of the Blackfeet Nation and Montana,” Tester wrote. “I request that the remaining oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine be cancelled to prevent adverse effects to the land or the people of the region.”
Tester’s letter came at the behest of Blackfeet tribal leaders and follows up on a letter the tribe sent to the departments last year contending that the tribe was never consulted and the environmental assessment was inadequate when the leases were granted.
The Badger-Two Medicine – named for the two crystal clear rivers that spill from its mountains – is located at the wild intersection of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It is a place of power for the tribes, where the nation’s prairie runs headlong into the Rocky Mountains, and is known as “Miistakis,” the “Backbone of the World,” where the Blackfeet were created.
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. This is the place of the Sun Dance, the Medicine Lodge, the wolf and wolverine and grizzly bear.
It is also the place where, for 30 years, American Indians have struggled with the federal government over plans to industrialize the landscape on behalf of private oil and gas companies. Despite numerous overtures to negotiate – to buy the leases, or to swap them for leases in other, less spiritual areas – several companies have declined to discuss anything short of full industrial development, including roads, gas wells and oil fields.
As a result, the tribes are now insisting that the original leases be canceled, as the government has done elsewhere when leases were found to have been issued in error.
In 1982, 47 leases were granted by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Two years later, a drilling permit was approved on one of the leases, though drilling was stalled when a moratorium was placed on oil and gas drilling in the area.
Today all but 18 of the leases have been voluntarily relinquished, but pending litigation threatens to lift the suspension and allow for development within this sensitive area.
The region around the Badger-Two Medicine has a long history of federal protections, dating back more than a century to the creation of Glacier National Park in 1910, the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1964. These designations have been complemented by the ban on future leases, implemented by a 2006 law introduced by then Senator Conrad Burns, the prohibition on motorized use, and the establishment of the Traditional Cultural District. The 1980s Reagan-era leases – which the Tribes believe violate both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act – stand out on the conservation timeline as a dramatic inconsistency, tribal leaders insist, and were granted without either tribal consultation or review of cultural resources.
Removing the leases and protecting the Badger-Two Medicine, according to the coalition of Tribes, is the only remedy.