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Blackfeet Nation gears up for action on drilling at sacred site






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

The Obama administration is set to decide this month whether to allow energy development on land held sacred by the Blackfeet Nation of Montana.

The tribe has been fighting drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine Area since the Reagan administration. Leases were approved without consultation but controversy has kept the 165,588-acre site safe from development.

A court case, though, forced the government's hand. Exasperated by the 33-year-old delay, Judge Richard J. Leon in July ordered the Obama administration to come up with a plan that would lead to an eventual decision on a single lease that covers 6,200 acres of Badger-Two Medicine.

"No combination of excuses could possibly justify such ineptitude or recalcitrance for such an epic period of time," Leon said in his July 27 decision.


Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Public Meeting on September 2, 2015

So far, the government has stuck to the plan that was filed in Leon's court in August. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation held a public meeting in Montana in early September, during which every speaker but one -- an attorney for the company that holds the drilling lease -- sided with the tribe and its effort to protect the land from development.

The meeting resulted in a recommendation from the ACHP to cancel the lease. Development "would result in serious and irreparable degradation" of Badger-Two Medicine, the independent agency told the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department in September.

The recommendation has now been embraced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, he said the U.S. Forest Service -- which manages the land because it falls within the Lewis and Clark National Forest -- does not support drilling.

Development poses "adverse effects" to Badger-Two Medicine, which is recognized as a traditional cultural district of the Blackfeet Nation, Vilsack wrote in the October 30 letter. Mitigation efforts are impossible because of the damage it will bring to the tribe's spiritual beliefs, he said.


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

The letter, though, isn't the end of the matter. The Bureau of Land Management, which falls under Jewell's purview, must decide by November 30 what will happen next. The agency outright cancel the lease, a process that would be completed by March 30, 2016.

Blackfeet leaders hope they won't have to wait that long. They cheered Vilsack's letter and reiterated their call for every lease in the sacred area to be canceled.

“The Forest Service has reaffirmed what we’ve said all along,” Chairman Harry Barnes said on Monday. “Drilling for oil in the Badger-Two Medicine would cause irreparable damage. We demand the cancellation of all illegal leases and the permanent protection of our sacred lands.”


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

Tribal leaders believe an 1885 treaty and an 1895 agreement protect their rights to use the area 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."

In light of the significance, the Blackfeet Pikuni Traditionalist Association and Brave Dog Society are seeking to reopen another court case in order to protect the area from development. Earthjustice, a non-profit law organization, wants to make sure the two religious groups are represented going forward.

The lawsuit is different from the one filed by Solonex LLC of Louisiana. A conservative legal group, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, is handling the case, which led to the ruling in July.

Related Stories:
Opinion: Sacred site designation in Montana kept from public (10/29)
Blackfeet Nation states opposition to drilling on sacred land (09/03)
Obama promises long-overdue action on drilling on sacred land (08/19)
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)