Attorneys representing the U.S. Department of the Interior, tribal and environmental groups Tuesday filed a notice of appeal challenging a federal judge’s decision to reinstate the last remaining oil and gas leases on the Badger-Two Medicine, an area flanking Glacier National Park that holds cultural and ecological significance to members of the Blackfeet Nation.
The filings in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia come just days before the Nov. 23 deadline, and preserve the government’s right to appeal Judge Richard J. Leon’s Sept. 24 order overturning the 2016 cancellation of leases held by Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and W.A. Moncrief Jr. in the Badger-Two Medicine area, a 130,000-acre swath of land between Glacier, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The leases were originally canceled by the Interior Department under President Barack Obama, but Leon ruled that action was improper.
On Nov. 20, the Interior Department, through the Justice Department, notified the court that it would appeal the U.S. District Court decision. To date, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native, 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 notice of appeal will shift the case’s jurisdiction from U.S. District Court to an appeals 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 also filed a notice of appeal.
Tim Preso, an attorney for the Bozeman-based environmental firm Earthjustice, said Zinke’s recent remarks pledging to uphold the lease cancellations and furnish permanent protections on the Badger-Two Medicine bode well for the region.
“We have Secretary Zinke’s statement, and I see no reason to view that as anything other than a fair representation of where the Interior Department stands,” Preso said. “So until I hear otherwise I have no reason to doubt that.”
John Murray, tribal historic preservation officer for the Blackfeet Nation, said the court filing was an important next step in the tribe’s decades-long fight to preserve the Badger.
“This is what needs to happen if we are going to succeed, and it is critical that we do,” he said. “This is our story.”
The saga of oil and gas leases in Badger-Two Medicine, which is the site of the creation story for the Blackfeet, 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.
Although the notice of appeal sets in motion the next procedural steps, Preso said it would be a lengthy legal process.
“Once all of the parties make their initial filings that identify what matters are being appealed, there will be an order setting forth a briefing schedule, requiring the filing of written arguments, and down the road a hearing for oral arguments,” Preso said. “Then the appeal will be submitted for a decision by the court. This process takes a while.”
Attorneys for Solenex and Moncrief have said they intend to fight to uphold the drilling rights throughout the appeals process.