U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Thursday ramped up pressure on Interior Department officials with a resolution to furnish permanent protections on the Badger-Two Medicine, calling on the Trump administration to defend the cancellation of an oil and gas lease on land culturally and ecologically sacred to members of the Blackfeet Nation.
On June 13, Tester, D-Mont., introduced a resolution on the floor of the U.S. Senate urging Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Trump administration to “reverse course and honor their commitment to the Blackfeet Tribe,” bringing the measure to bear after Interior officials announced they would not defend the lease cancellation in the face of a legal challenge.
A frustrated Tester said the administration’s about-face was an affront to the Blackfeet, the state of Montana and wild places in general.
“Secretary Bernhardt and this Administration have broken their own commitment to the Blackfeet Tribe,” Tester said. “So today we’re holding them to account on what we in Montana already know — this sacred, wild, beautiful place must be protected for future generations. That’s a promise the previous Interior Secretary made to the Tribe, and it’s one the current Secretary must honor.”
The leases were originally canceled by the Interior Department under President Barack Obama, but U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled last September that the action was improper. Then in November, attorneys representing the Interior filed a notice of appeal challenging Judge Leon’s decision to reinstate the leases, and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native, said he would defend the lease cancellations.
In a change of course in April, however, attorneys representing the Interior filed paperwork announcing they would not defend the cancellation of one of the last remaining oil and gas leases on the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine, an area flanking Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Reservation.
While members of the Blackfeet Nation expressed disappointment and frustration with the Interior’s decision not to fight an appeal of the cancellation by lease-owner W.A. Moncrief Jr, the Interior Department is expected to defend the cancellation of a second lease held by Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, which is also being fought on appeal.
Still, Tester took aim at Interior officials for their unwillingness to defend the lease cancellations whole hog, introducing the resolution as a means of expressing “that the Department of the Interior has broken a commitment to the Blackfeet Tribe to defend the cancellation of all leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area and urging the Department of the Interior to work closely with the Blackfeet Tribe to defend the Badger-Two Medicine area from oil and gas development,” according to the measure.
In a statement, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Tim Davis said the recent Interior decision is a marked departure from the government’s earlier pledge to defend the Badger-Two Medicine; however, members of the Blackfeet Nation will continue to work to protect the region from development in perpetuity, he said.
“While we are disappointed that the U.S. government and DOI have chosen not to honor commitments made to our Nation by fully defending our lands in court, we look forward to working alongside our federal partners to resolve these issues through negotiation, settlement and exchange,” Davis wrote in a statement.
Tester, who opposed Bernhardt’s nomination to lead the Interior in part because of his withdrawal of the Interior’s defense of the Badger-Two Medicine lease withdrawal, has long supported permanent protections in the region.
John Murray, tribal historic preservation officer for the Blackfeet Nation, said the government’s decision to back away from the Moncrief case is a setback in the tribe’s ongoing quest to defend the Badger, but he expressed confidence in the path forward, which will include negotiations with the lease-holder.
“The Badger-Two Medicine is sacred land for the Blackfeet Tribe, and it’s a cornerstone of our history and our culture,” Murray said. “This is an irreplaceable landscape, and we are strongly disappointed to see the Department of the Interior go back on its commitment to safeguard this land. We will keep fighting to make sure the Badger-Two Medicine stays wild, beautiful, and protected for our people, our children, and our grandchildren.”
Numerous environmental groups, many of them intervenors in the lawsuits, quickly jumped into Tester’s corner and applauded his efforts to hold the administration accountable.
“Montanans and the Blackfeet Nation continue to pay the price for the government’s illegal leasing of the Badger-Two Medicine over 30 years ago,” Jennifer Ferenstein, Montana’s senior representative for the Wilderness Society, said. “Now is the time for the Department of the Interior to honor its pledge to defend the Badger-Two Medicine and to allow the intervenors — Blackfeet, hunters, anglers, and conservationists — to continue our pursuit of a fair decision in the courts. Thank you Sen. Tester for taking a stand on behalf of all of us who value the wildlife, water, and the cultural survival of the Blackfeet.”