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Obama promises long-overdue action on drilling on sacred land

Filed Under: Environment | Law | National | Politics
More on: achp, barack obama, blackfeet, blm, earl old person, energy, jon tester, meetings, montana, sacred sites, scia, treaties, usfs
     


Badger Creek in the Badger-Two Medicine Area in Montana. Photo from Blackfeet Nation

After 33 years of waiting, an energy company will finally learn whether it can drill for oil and gas on sacred Blackfeet Nation land in Montana.

In 1982, the Reagan administration approved development in the Badger-Two Medicine Area near the reservation. But objections from the tribe, whose leaders weren't consulted about drilling, have kept work from moving forward out of concerns about an area that plays a central role in Blackfeet culture, religion and history.

The lack of action prompted Solonex LLC, a company based in Louisiana, to sue the Interior Department in hopes of lifting a lease suspension that was imposed in 1998. After hearing from both sides, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., said enough was enough and ordered the Obama administration to come up with a plan.


Blackfeet Nation leaders, from left: Historic Preservation Officer John Murray, Chief Earl Old Person and Secretary Tyson Running Wolf. Photo from Blackfeet Nation

"No combination of excuses could possibly justify such ineptitude or recalcitrance for such an epic period of time," Judge Richard J. Leon wrote in a July 27 decision

The Department of Justice submitted the requested plan on Monday. It involves no less than three federal agencies -- the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service -- but government attorneys are promising to come up with a response by November 30.

The response could come in two forms. The Obama administration could outright cancel Solonex's lease, a move that would please the tribe but would likely spawn more litigation from the company.


The Sweet Grass Hills are a part of the Badger-Two Medicine Area in Montana. Photo from National Trust for Historic Preservation

Or the Bureau of Land Management could decide to lift the 1998 suspension, a move that would please Solonex but one that might lead to a lawsuit from the tribe. Even in this situation, though, the company is being asked to wait until the next presidential administration -- July 2017, to be exact -- before learning whether it can drill in Badger Two-Medicine.

The tribe and its supporters hope the process doesn't go that far. They are calling on Congress to cancel the Solonex lease, along with 17 others, citing the sacred nature of the 165,600-acre area.

"There are certain places in this world where we just shouldn't drill," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in July after the judge ordered the action plan."The Badger-Two Medicine has historical, cultural, and recreational significance that you simply can't put a price tag on."


Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), left, greets a young member of the Blackfeet Nation during the dedication of the Thunder Park skate park in Browning, Montana, on June 26, 2015. The tribe honored Tester that day for supporting efforts to protect the Badger-Two Medicine Area. Photo from Facebook

Badger-Two Medicine currently falls within the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Tribal leaders believe an 1885 treaty and an 1895 agreement protect their rights to use the land for ceremonies, hunting, fishing and other traditional activities.

"The Badger Two Medicine for thousands of years has helped shape the identity of the Blackfeet people," Chief Earl Old Person, who also sits on the tribal council, wrote in a March 2015 letter to President Barack Obama. "This area has been utilized as a sanctuary for not only the wildlife, but also for our people to come together and realize their spirituality and to be in touch with their creator."


The Badger-Two Medicine Area sits next to the Blackfeet Reservation. Image from Blackfeet Nation

The tribe and other interested members of the public will be able to discuss the issue at a September 2 meeting in Choteau, Montana. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will formulate its response and send it to the U.S. Forest Service by September 21, according to the notice that was filed in court on Monday.

The U.S. Forest Service will then make its own recommendation to the Bureau of Land Management by October 31. Finally, that agency will decide, by November 30, whether to cancel the Solonex lease or move forward with another environmental review process that will stretch into the next administration.

Despite the tribe's stance on Badger-Two Medicine, its leaders do not oppose energy development altogether. But negotiations that would have allowed Solonex to drill on the reservation in exchange for giving up the existing lease ended this summer without an agreement.

Related Stories:
Judge upset with delay in drilling dispute affecting sacred land (07/29)
Blackfeet Nation reiterates opposition to drilling on sacred land (07/10)
Blackfeet Nation to honor Sen. Tester for sacred site support (06/25)
Judge questions delay in drilling on Blackfeet Nation sacred site (06/17)
Judge to hear arguments in Blackfeet Nation sacred site dispute (6/9)
Blackfeet Nation launches campaign to ban drilling at sacred site (04/23)
Blackfeet Nation opposes energy development on sacred lands (03/30)


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