There had been more than a week of really cold days this past November, below zero days up here. I’m referring to the Marias Pass area, back to Bear Creek and east to the reservation. The country had finally become wintered up. We’d had some snow followed by some low temperatures. I still had horses at our place, however, and so when I was asked by a friend to lead a ride into some of the best country I know, special country I’ve ridden in for pushing 40 years, I nodded a go.
The country I’m speaking of is the Badger-Two Medicine, east of the continental divide and south to Birch Creek, directly adjacent to Glacier National Park. Many of you know the area, some very well. At the least, you’ve read about it, in this publication and many others. The Badger-Two Medicine hasn’t been without controversy over the course of the past half century and that profile has heated up significantly over the past decade. Oil and gas exploration, motorized vehicle use, grazing of livestock, national monument status, and Native American treaty rights have all had their time in the public’s environmental bullseye. Amazingly enough, however, oil and gas leases have been, slowly but surely, and not without hard public advocacy, eliminated, one after another.
Motorized use in the Badger became prohibited following very contentious debate by both sides of the issue. You won’t see a snow machine or a four-wheeler anymore. Monument status in the Badger has been raised to discussion level in Washington, D.C, and the Blackfeet Tribe has begun to exert its influence in decision-making forums relative to the area.
This past September, a judge reinstated the oil and gas lease of Solonex, LLC in the Badger-Two Medicine, and after 21 years, Big Oil was back in play. Game on. From my perspective, however, Solonex only added more fuel to the fire. Of additional concern to me over this past year has been the specter of monument designation, at first blush an environmental boon to the area but, in my opinion, a move that would put the Badger in the public consciousness and on display to the ever-burgeoning increase in tourism and visitation. More drama.
Well alright, so what about the ride we were about to do? Me, my good friend, and the Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke were up. The three of us on a private ride. No security, no press, nobody. Ryan wanted to see the country in question and I was good with that. They rode mules and I rode a horse. We’re saddled up and off we go, onward and upward into the heart of some of the dearest, most sacred and precious country I know. It was a beautiful day, cold and crisp, the snow was as white as a polar bear, and the sun was out. I didn’t know what to make of Ryan.
He’s big and tall, a decent-looking fellow. I may have been expecting what we’ve all read, a grandstander, shoots from the hip, a big mouth. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
I’ve read what you’ve read. I’ve heard as well what you have, on the news and on the stump. I agree, it’s not very flattering. As we rode ahead into the high country, the day absolutely spectacular, that sun keeping us warm, and the sky as blue as Butch Cassidy’s eyes, I was with a man who was kind, courteous, and generous. Hell, we shared his Maker’s Mark whiskey over small talk while letting the country speak for itself. The secretary was curious, I could see. He asked questions and listened respectfully as I responded and added my thoughts on about everything he could see. And oh could we see, from the Sweetgrass Hills to Divide Mountain and on down towards Heart Butte.
I want to tell you that my mission that day was to focus on one thing. And that was the Badger-Two Medicine, nothing more. I didn’t want to go anywhere else, not to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, not to the Yellowstone, not to the Bears Ears, and most certainly not to Washington, D.C. I stayed with the country I know. And I repeat again, for the most part, I let the country do the talking. Ryan listened. I could see it and I know it to be true. He loved our ride; he loved the country we’d ridden him through. And when it was all said and done, he looked me in the eye and told me he wouldn’t tear up the heart and soul of the country he’d just ridden through. He could give Solonex drilling rights somewhere else. I believed him.
He’s gone now. Done at the Department of Interior. He’s been a disappointment to many. I just read a scathing article about his reign this morning. I don’t know what to say at this point, but let me get the following off my chest. Ryan Zinke is a Montana boy. He showed me a real good side on a very special day in the backcountry. On that day, he put Montana first. And consequently, he put you first.
Bill Beck owns Bear Creek Guest Ranch with his wife, Diana, in East Glacier Park.