Members of the Blackfeet Nation and conservationists are keeping careful watch on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as a critical deadline approaches for the government to appeal a judge’s decision reinstating an oil and gas lease on land adjacent to Glacier National Park that is sacred to the tribe.
The September ruling handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C. overturned the 2016 cancellation of a 10-square-mile lease held by Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, just east of Glacier Park. The lease had been originally canceled by the Interior Department under President Barack Obama, but Leon ruled that action was improper.
In its response to the ruling, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Tim Davis and Vice Chairman Scott Kipp said the judge’s action “once again threatens our Blackfeet cultural homeland with industrialization,” and they asked for Zinke’s commitment to “protecting our cultural heritage.”
The Department of the Interior has until Nov. 23 to notify the court that it will appeal the U.S. District Court decision. To date, Zinke has been a leader in upholding the lease cancellations, and tribal leaders and conservation groups are asking him to fight to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area.
“Your powerful legal defense of the lease cancelations and your recommendation that the Badger-Two Medicine be considered for permanent protections have helped set the state for a new generation of pride and progress for the Blackfeet Nation,” according to the letter from tribal leaders.
One prominent member of that generation is Jesse DesRosier, a Blackfeet teacher and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who has been advocating for permanent protection of the area.
“This is a defining moment for the Badger-Two Medicine, and the Department of the Interior cannot afford to miss this upcoming appeal deadline,” DesRosier said. “We sincerely hope that Zinke is committed to joining us in protecting our homeland and has our back in this epic fight.”
DesRosier has been marshaling resources to defend something he says is critical to the Blackfeet spiritual identity as well as the natural landscape where Blackfeet derived much of their spirituality.
Last year, he and dozens of other Native American veterans and active-duty members petitioned Zinke to defend the sacred ancestral homeland known as the Badger-Two Medicine, a 130,000-acre area named for the two rivers that define it.
DesRosier and other tribal members, as well as numerous conservation groups, are seeking to furnish the region with permanent protections from oil and gas drilling, and they’re calling on Zinke to defend the Obama administration’s cancellation of the last remaining oil and gas leases and to protect the area in perpetuity.
“The Badger-Two Medicine is our Vatican,” DesRosier said. “It’s a temple for us, and it remains under attack.”
The saga of oil and gas leases in Badger-Two Medicine has been ongoing for more than 30 years, since Solenex and others first acquired leases in the area. In that time, the company has not done any drilling on the land, and after decades of bureaucratic delays, Solenex sued the federal government in 2013.
Solenex wants to drill for gas in Badger-Two Medicine, and after the cancellation of the lease was overturned last month, Solenex attorney William Perry Pendley asked President Donald Trump to allow the company to begin that work.
Blackfeet council members were unmoved by Pendley’s argument that Solenex has had claim to the land for more than 35 years, saying they have been waiting for a resolution far longer.
“In his ruling, Judge Leon indicated the leases should stand because the government had waited 35 years before taking action,” they wrote last month in a letter. “The Blackfeet, of course, have waited those same 35 years for resolution. And we were stewards of this land for 35 centuries before that, and another 35 centuries before that, and yet another 35 centuries before that, even. Blackfeet sites in this region have been dated to more than 13,000 years ago, and our connection to the Badger-Two Medicine goes back to the beginnings of time.”
Zinke last year recommended designating the Badger-Two Medicine area as a national monument, but even that action would not bar drilling on the land.
Bounded on the north by Glacier National Park, the east by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the south by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Badger-Two Medicine comprises an expanse of roadless mountainous river valleys that serve as a source of the Blackfeet tribe’s cultural and religious practices, and is the birthplace of Blackfeet creation stories, as well as a critical ecological corridor.
John Murray, the Blackfeet tribal historic preservation officer, has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect the area for years, and said a renewed interest in Blackfeet culture from members of the tribe’s younger generations gives him greater hope that they will prevail.
“The young people are reviving that cultural spirituality and are moving in a positive direction,” Murray said. “It is a renaissance. It’s the beginning. We can see the re-flowering of our culture. We just need to put more sunshine on it and more water to encourage that growth.”