For the first time in 40 years, the Badger-Two Medicine, a pristine region along the Rocky Mountain Front brimming with rivers and wildlife corridors and trussed on all sides by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, is safe from the specter of oil and gas drilling.
The efforts by Blackfeet tribal leaders and cultural stewards to furnish permanent protections on the 130,000-acre landscape have been matched at every turn by the opposing forces of oil and gas companies seeking to drill there. But a recent decision by a federal appeals court to uphold the cancellation of the last remaining oil and gas lease in the area has set the stage for Blackfeet traditionalists, along with a coalition of partners and stakeholders, to finally extinguish the threat.
To build on that momentum, tribal leaders on Thursday announced a legislative proposal to protect the Badger-Two Medicine in perpetuity by designating it a “Cultural Heritage Area,” guaranteeing continued public access and, for the most part, “keeps things the way they are.”
That’s according to John Murray, the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, who points out that the Tribe’s years-long fight to stave off industrial encroachment on the Badger has resulted in some protections.
The proposed Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act was drafted in partnership with Blackfeet leaders, non-tribal neighbors, hunters, anglers, conservationists, ranchers, local landowners and many others. In most ways, Murray said, it builds on existing protections, such as the area’s Traditional Cultural District designation, and is modeled on legislation already enacted in other places.
The proposal guarantees continued public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, horse packing and other traditional uses. It also keeps grazing rights intact on the land.
Because the Badger-Two Medicine already is off-limits to new oil and gas leasing and to motorized access, it has no impact on the current status of those uses. Non-commercial timber harvest would continue under the proposal, for forest health, wildfire response and private property protection. And the plan would add protections for headwater streams that are an important source of clean water for agricultural operations and communities both on and off the reservation.
In addition to protecting traditional uses, the “Cultural Heritage Area” designation guarantees existing treaty rights will be honored, and establishes formal Tribal consultation with the U.S. Forest Service to contribute to future management decisions. The bill also provides the Blackfeet Nation an opportunity to conduct trail maintenance and other contracted forest work.
“There are important voices that for too long have not been heard,” Murray said, noting that during the recent legal proceedings there were no Blackfeet judges or attorneys in the courtroom. “We have been refused a seat at our own table, and people across the country have been making decisions about our most sacred ancestral lands. This proposal provides us a voice in the discussion.”
In addition, the proposal establishes a diverse citizen advisory group made up of both tribal and non-tribal stakeholders, to help the Forest Service draft long-term management guidelines for the Badger-Two Medicine.
This is not the first plan advanced to protect the area; multiple proposals for wilderness designation date back to the 1970s, and a Trump administration review recommended creating a National Monument there in 2017.
“But this is the first time in 40 years that we have been out from under the threat of industrial leases,” Terry Tatsey, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said. “This is a real opportunity to get it right, once and for all. The Cultural Heritage Area plan is the first proposal to be written with Blackfeet involvement, and with Blackfeet values included.”
According to Tatsey, Blackfeet owe their cultural survival to the Badger-Two Medicine.
“For all those decades, when the federal government outlawed our ceremonies, those mountains are where we went to practice our culture and our ways,” he said. “It’s our last refuge.”
For decades, the Badger-Two Medicine’s fate remained uncertain, its future overshadowed by federal oil and gas leases meted out in the 1980s, which carved the landscape into an industrial checkerboard. Today, however, nearly all of those leases have been voluntarily relinquished and the land remains undeveloped. Future energy leasing was prohibited in 2006, when then-U.S. Sen. Max Baucus offered tax incentives to leaseholders to sell or donate their leases.
The Badger-Two Medicine isn’t just a place of spiritual refuge, but also provides critical habitat for grizzly bears, wolverine, elk, mule deer and other iconic wildlife species that migrate between the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Glacier National Park.
“The Badger-Two Medicine represents some of the best wild habitat on the planet,” Tyson Running Wolf, a state legislator and former Blackfeet councilman, said. “This is where the prairie meets the mountains, and it’s some of the finest hunting heritage Montana has left.”
That’s a big reason the proposal has the support of so many sportsmen, Running Wolf said. In addition to the support of hunters and anglers, the proposed Cultural Heritage Area is backed by a former oil leaseholder, as well as ranchers, business owners, conservation interests, large private landowners, outfitters and guides, and others.
It’s also been endorsed by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the Blackfoot Confederacy, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which represents all the Tribes of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
“We’ve been talking to our neighbors for a long time about this, making sure we’re getting it right,” Running Wolf said. “Lots of people have provided advice, making it a better proposal for everyone.”
Recently, the Blackfeet Nation shared the proposal with Montana’s congressional delegation, with a request that they work together in a bipartisan manner to pass the measure as swiftly as possible.
“A moment like this doesn’t present itself very often,” Murray said. “With the leases canceled and the Forest Service seeking to manage the area in accordance with the existing Traditional Cultural District designation, we’re looking at a tremendous window of opportunity for everyone.”
“This land heals,” he added, “and I think all of us could use some healing in the world right now.”