Norton hit on exploration of sacred site
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JUNE 6, 2001

Democrats on the House Resources Committee today plan to question Secretary of Interior Gale Norton about a controversial decision which could pave the way for wide-scale development of land considered sacred to a number of tribes.

Led by Representative Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat, they hope to use the hearing to show objection to President Bush's national energy policy, which calls for more development of federal and Indian lands. Before the hearing, Rahall and four tribal representatives will announce an attempt to block drilling at Weatherman Draw in Montana, otherwise known as Valley of the Chiefs.

For hundreds of years, tribes in Montana and beyond have come to the Valley to pray and hold ceremonies among rock art contained on the site's canyon walls. The Valley contains the largest known and "highly significant" concentration of painted art in the entire Northern Plains.

The distinction lead the Bureau of Land Management in 1999 to declare 4,268 acres at Weatherman Draw a critical environmental area. The designation requires the government to adopt special management plans to protect the site's cultural and historical value.

By that time, though, development had already long been proposed at Weatherman Draw, with tribes being consulted as early as 1994. No work had taken place, however. In 1996, the Anschutz Exploration Corp. acquired drilling leases , seeking to tap into what could be 10 million barrels of oil in the area.

To test the idea, the company initially proposed to drill two wells. But after finalizing an environmental assessment in March 2000, the BLM could not sign off on development because it could have affected the site.

Anschutz subsequently proposed to drill only one test well and seek more development if successful. The BLM in February approved this plan, subject to conditions, saying the well would have no significant impact on the Valley.

Because of ceremonies conducted by tribal members, the BLM isn't allowing Anschutz to work between April 15 to May 16 and September 15 to October 15. To protect a bird species, no work is allowed between March 1 and June 15.

An archaeologist would also be on site and no workers would be allowed near the rock art. The well itself would be within one-quarter of mile of the sacred areas.

Despite the conditions, the tribes objected to the proposal. They asked the BLM to reconsider but after a review period, the decision was affirmed on May 21, paving the way for Anschutz to begin work as early as next week. Anschutz itself estimates it can complete the task in 10 days, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Aides to Rahall said he became interested in the issue because the committee has jurisdiction over Indian affairs. Howard Boggess, a member of the Crow Tribe of Montana, Jimmy St. Goddard from the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, Tim Mentz, historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and Jimmy Arterberry, historic preservation officer for the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma, will participate in today's conference.

A Department of Interior spokesperson said Norton would respond to questions about the development. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 10 AM Eastern Standard Time and will be broadcast on the Internet.

Listen to the Hearing:
Audio (House Resources Committee)

Get BLM Documents:
Anschutz Exploration Corp. will be allowed to drill (BLM 2/6)
Weatherman Draw Oil and Gas Exploration (BLM 2/16)

Relevant Links:
Anschutz Exploration -
House Resources Committee -

Related Stories:
GOP faces last day in power: House taking advantage (6/5)
BLM allows oil exploration at sacred site (5/22)
Sacred site slated for oil exploration (5/21)
Tribes protest drilling decision (5/8)