Amy Corbin and Ashley Tindall
Keith Tatsey of Blackfeet Community College for reviewing prior to publication.
September 1, 2001
April 25, 2019
The Badger-Two Medicine Roadless Area sits on National Forest land within the Rocky Mountain Front. This dramatic landscape where the plains, mountains, and two rivers meet is adjacent to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, and contains an area known as the Sweet Grass Hills. Badger-Two Medicine has been designated a Traditional Cultural District under the National Historic Preservation Act due to its significance to and continued use by the Blackfeet Nation. Buster Yellow Kidney (Blackfeet) explains the significance of the area to his people: “All of the mountains of the Badger-Two Medicine are sacred and necessary to our religion. It is not possible to name certain peaks and designate them as sacred peaks. To do so would be like asking a Christian which part of his church was most sacred, and then bulldozing everything else.” As of 2007, the issuance of new oil and gas exploration leases in the entire Rocky Mountain Front ended. While many old leases have been retired, some “through leases” remain in Badger-Two Medicine.
History of the Conflict
Beginning in the 1970s, corporations and local Native American tribes began to fight over oil and gas drilling in the Rocky Mountain Front, a 100-mile-long stretch of mountain and grassland in northwest Montana that is predominantly administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. In the 1980s under the Reagan Administration, Chevron Corp. and Fina Oil and Chemical Co. acquired oil and gas leases to about two thirds of the Badger-Two Medicine area, which comprises roughly 130,000 acres. Litigation and citizen pressure caused enough delay for the oil companies that they eventually abandoned their plans and sold off their leases to a number of smaller companies.
During the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, these companies continued to seek permission to begin drilling, but the Department of the Interior suspended their leases until a cultural resources inventory could be completed. Local tribes lobbied vigorously to protect their sacred mountains. Meanwhile, in 1997, the Forest Service withdrew all oil and gas leases on National Forest lands along the Rocky Mountain Front, including the Badger-Two Medicine, for ten years.
The isolation of the area and its ties to creation stories make Badger-Two Medicine an integral part of the Blackfeet religion. Teenage boys undertake vision quests on this land as they grow to adulthood. The Blackfeet believe that the Sweet Grass Hills in Badger-Two Medicine were made by the Creator out of the rocks remaining from the Rocky Mountains. The area is home to the revered bison and is a crucial winter refuge for grizzly bear, bighorn sheep and elk that enter from nearby state wildlife refuges and Glacier National Park. Drilling in the area would have significantly impacted the spiritual practices of the Blackfeet because of the noise, construction, increased human traffic and destruction of the land itself.
In 1995, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the amount of gas beneath the whole of the Rocky Mountain Front would meet U.S. demand for less than a month. However, throughout the George W. Bush administration, while Republicans controlled Congress, there was enormous pressure to open up protected wilderness areas like Badger-Two Medicine and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—areas with low energy potential—in order to symbolically demonstrate the administration’s determination to develop domestic oil and gas sources. The process of opening up these areas began with an energy bill passed by the House of Representatives in 2002 that recommended allowing resource extraction in areas that had been “administratively withdrawn” under the Clinton and previous administrations. This bill, which did not become law, would have nullified the 1997 Forest Service decision protecting the Rocky Mountain Front through 2007. The Bureau of Land Management then spent several years investigating possible areas of the front to study for oil and gas drilling.
The Blackfeet tribal council had sold drilling leases on reservation land to oil and gas companies in an effort to deter drilling in Badger-Two Medicine. This action made other tribes and the conservation community uneasy, but it reflects the Blackfeet tribe’s dual desires to protect their sacred land in Badger-Two Medicine while also generating revenue for the community.
However, also in 2002, Badger-Two Medicine was registered as a Traditional Cultural District. The area’s eligibility “stemmed from its association with Blackfeet traditional religious and cultural practices, its connection to culturally important spirits, heroes, and historic figures central to Blackfeet religion, traditional lifeways, and practices, and its significant archaeological sites and features.” (Ore, 2017)
In December 2006, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) drafted a bill that made the 1997 moratorium on new oil and gas leases permanent. It also made retiring the existing leases easier by offering tax incentives to corporations who sell their leases to nonprofit coalitions. This is attractive to energy corporations that want to shed unprofitable or nonperforming leases without taking a financial loss. Baucus’ bill was added as an amendment to the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, and with the pressure of the incoming Democratic majority in Congress, was signed by President Bush.
In 2006, 18 oil and gas exploration leases in Badger-Two Medicine still remained, but momentum was pushing companies to sell or donate the remaining leases one by one, and the Blackfeet Nation was optimistic that the leases would all be retired. The Blackleaf area of the Rocky Mountain Front was completely cleared of old leases after the two remaining leaseholders agreed to sell in 2006. The Blackfeet and local conservationists continued to work on agreements to take leases out of circulation, to protect roadless areas from motorized recreation vehicles, and to push the Forest Service to develop a “travel management plan” for the Front.
Two leases have proven contentious. Solenex, LLC held on to one lease, and a second lease acquired in the 1980s is still held in 2019 by 99-year-old W.A. Moncrief Jr. (Moncrief Oil, however, does not have a permit to drill).
The Blackfeet Community College completed its cultural resources inventory of Badger-Two Medicine in December 2006, expanding the area the Forest Service had previously documented as a Traditional Cultural District. The tribe has not pushed for the site’s formal listing on the National Register of Historic Places, opting instead to pursue co-management of the land with the Forest Service. From the Blackfeet point of view, local land management has a better chance of coexisting with their treaty rights to hunt and harvest timber. Although it is early in the planning stages, the co-management arrangement seems possible since the Forest Service acknowledges that it lacks the funding to manage the land on its own. Cooperation between the Forest Service and the Blackfeet Nation would then serve the interests of both sides.
There has been pushback by oil and gas companies since the imposition of the moratorium on leases in 2006, and in June 2013 Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of lessee Sidney Longwell of Solenex, LLC, hoping to lift the suspension on the Hall Creek lease. Rather than granting the request, the federal government, under the Obama administration, cancelled Sidney Longwell of Solenex’s lease, and also the Moncrief lease. While challenges to this decision stretched out several years, in March 2016 the Department of the Interior confirmed the cancellation of the leases to be completed by January 2017. In response to this action, Devon Energy, which in 2016 held fifteen leases on the land, decided to voluntarily relinquish all of its own leases.
In 2017, the Badger-Two Medicine was free from all drilling leases, although legal challenges remained.
In September 2018, Solenex and Sidney Longwell received a federal court ruling in their favor, allowing the company to once again drill in Badger-Two Medicine. Federal judge Richard Leon also overturned the Obama administration’s cencellation of the Moncrief lease. In a move surprising to the companies, the Trump administration appealed this ruling in November 2018, siding with the Blackfeet tribe to keep the Traditional Cultural District free from oil and gas drilling on cultural and spiritual grounds.
But in April 2019, the Trump administration reversed course and withdrew its appeal of the cancellation of the Montcrief drilling permit. However, the government is not challenging the cancellation of Solenex’s drilling permit. In response to this action, Earthjustice will pursue the Montcrief case in court, citing both public interest and Blackfeet interests in keeping drilling out of Badger-Two Medicine.
The victory in the Rocky Mountain Front shows the impact that a coalition of groups drawing upon common interest can have. In this case, Native American tribes, the conservation community, outdoor sportsmen, ranchers and business owners joined forces to successfully lobby Congress to change U.S. policy on energy leases in protected areas. In addition to the decades-long support of Sen. Baucus, the Blackfeet Nation was joined by the Wilderness Society, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front. The persistence exhibited by the Blackfeet Nation and their environmental allies was noteworthy. Fortunately, their efforts have been met with support from the Congress after the change in party control in 2007, and again from the federal governments under the Obama and Trump administrations.
Coalition for the Protection of the Rocky Mountain Front (Facebook page)
Blackfeet filmmaker George Burdeau’s documentary, Backbone of the World, on contemporary Blackfeet issues and efforts to protect their sacred land
Ore, Kathryn Sears (2017) “Form and Substance: The National Historic Preservation Act, Badger-Two Medicine, and Meaningful Consultation,” Public Land and Resources Law Review: Vol. 38 , Article 7.
Associated Press. “Trump administration sides with tribes in Badger-Two Medicine drilling dispute,” Great Falls Tribune, Nov. 13, 2018
Associated Press. “US backs off appeal of Montana energy lease cancellation,” April 4, 2019