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Blackfeet Nation wins ruling against development at sacred site






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

The Obama administration will be canceling a controversial energy lease on sacred Blackfeet Nation land in Montana, government attorneys announced on Monday.

Tribal leaders cheered the decision, which was more than 30 years in the making. They have been trying to prevent oil and gas drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine Area ever since the Reagan administration approved leases without consulting them.

“Badger-Two Medicine is too sacred to develop,” Chairman Harry Barnes said from Browning, the headquarters of the Blackfeet Nation. “We’re grateful this administration has taken a critical step toward permanent protection of this site that is like a church -- a divine sanctuary -- to our people.”

The filing in federal court was not unexpected. As part of a plan submitted in August, the Department of Justice said the Obama administration would reveal the next steps in the long-running case by the end of this month.


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

But in a surprise move, government attorneys said the Interior Department is prepared to cancel the lease as early as December 11. The prior plan anticipated that the process would be completed by March 2016 because the Bureau of Land Management thought it needed to conduct an environmental review.

However, the agency has since determined that the extra step isn't necessary. The holder of the lease has never been able to look for oil or gas due to a suspension that was imposed back in 1998, the filing states.

"The lease being cancelled has never been developed," government attorneys wrote. "The cancellation thus does not alter the environmental status quo and, in fact, would preserve what is currently an undeveloped and relatively remote place."

The 165,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine Area since lies adjacent to the reservation. Tribal leaders believe an 1885 treaty and an 1895 agreement protect their rights to use the land for ceremonies, hunting, fishing and other activities.


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

"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."

Once the lease at issue -- which covers 6,200 acres -- is canceled, the tribe hopes to secure permanent protections for the area. But Chairman Barnes doesn't think Solonex LLC of Louisiana or its allies in the energy industry will go quietly.

“The government has absolutely made the right decision and begun to right a wrong that was done to our people decades ago,” said Barnes. “But we know that corporate interests are unlikely to back down from the fight and neither are we. We won’t end our battle until Badger-Two Medicine is permanently protected from oil and gas development.”

Local support for the tribe is strong. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation held a public meeting in Montana in early September, during which every speaker but one -- an attorney for Solonex -- called for further protections for the land.


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

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, also supports the tribe. He's asked the Obama administration to cancel all remaining 18 leases.

"There are certain places in this world where we just shouldn't drill," Tester said in July."The Badger-Two Medicine has historical, cultural, and recreational significance that you simply can't put a price tag on."

Judge Richard J. Leon of the federal court in Washington, D.C., would need to approve the accelerated schedule for canceling the lease, according to the government's filing. He previously criticized the lengthy delay in the handling of the matter.

"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.

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