Although attorneys with the Department of Justice still have not appealed a judge’s decision to reinstate a lease allowing oil and gas drilling on sacred land flanking Glacier National Park, tribal leaders are hopeful that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will stay true to his promise.
The Whitefish-born secretary’s promise, however, was reported exclusively by Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown on Nov. 14, and neither the Justice Department nor Interior would comment on what would happen leading up to the Nov. 23 deadline.
According to the Associated Press, Zinke said in an interview that it would be inappropriate to allow drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area, which is site of the creation story for the Blackfeet, and has asked government attorneys to appeal a September ruling handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C.
In that ruling, Leon 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.
The Department of the Interior, through the Justice Department, has until Nov. 23 — or 60 days after the Sept. 24 order — 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.
The Justice Department may also file a protective notice of appeal, which preserves its appeal rights after the 60-day statutory window closes.
A notice of appeal would shift the case’s jurisdiction from U.S. District Court to an appellate court. Intervenors in the case including the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance; Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance; Montana Wilderness Association; National Parks Conservation Association; Wilderness Society; and Pikuni Traditionalist Association have also announced their intent to appeal.
John Murray, tribal historic preservation officer for the Blackfeet Nation, said he was concerned the appeal still hadn’t been filed as of Nov. 18, but is optimistic that Zinke will follow through with the appeal.
“Our concern is that the appeal still hasn’t been filed, but the way I understand it is that the Department of Justice will make a decision at the last minute,” Murray said. “Right now, we have a promise from Zinke but we don’t know if he carried it out or not. But if he said he is going to do it, I am sure he is going to do it. He has been a friend to the Blackfeet. Obviously he has honored that friendship, and I think he understands we’re not just ordinary strikers protesting on the street. This is a really legitimate cause. And I think he understands that.”
Tim Davis, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council chairman, said the report of Zinke’s support for the Badger-Two Medicine was welcome news, but he hopes to receive final assurance in the coming week.
“We welcome Secretary Zinke’s announcement, and thank him for his continued work on behalf of Blackfeet lands and culture,” Running Wolf said. “We look forward to working with Secretary Zinke and his administration to make his commitment a reality in the coming weeks.
Tyson Running Wolf, a former member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council who was recently elected to represent House District 16 in the Montana Legislature, shared Davis’ optimism.
“I am very hopeful that they are going to get the appeals process before the deadline,” he said. “They have to. This has to get done.”
Lease owner Solenex LLC has urged Zinke to uphold its drilling rights, and attorneys representing the company and its owner, Sydney Longwell, said it will continue to fight.
“I’m very disappointed,” Solenex attorney William Perry Pendley, of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, said. “The secretary is asking an appeals court to rule that the secretary of Interior can cancel any lease at any time for any reason. And that it is not too much for a secretary to reach back 32 years and say ‘mistakes were made 32 years ago so I can cancel the lease today.’ It’s bad all the way around, and I think it is particularly bad for the Trump administration, which has prided itself on increasing leasing activities. This is setting the president up to be defeated in 2020.
Although Solenex has held the lease for more than 30 years, it has not yet drilled because of numerous bureaucratic delays within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture that prompted the company to sue in 2013.
Tribal leaders disagree with Pendley’s assessment, saying the claims were illegally granted and noting that numerous companies have voluntarily withdrawn their claims due to the region’s world-class ecological and cultural significance, saying simply that it was “the right thing to do.”
“These last two remaining companies have been offered tax credits, cash buybacks, federal lease credits, land leases elsewhere on the Blackfeet Reservation, and even pre-drilled wells in Blackfeet oil fields,” Davis said. “Despite our efforts, however, they have refused to speak with us, let alone to negotiate a solution with us. Instead, they have persisted in legal challenges.”
“When the final rulings are made we are confident the Badger-Two Medicine and the Blackfeet culture will be fully protected,” he added.