Blackfeet traditionalists and conservationists reach historic settlement agreement with leaseholder, ending 40-year struggle to prevent oil and gas drilling on public lands sacred to the Blackfeet Nation.
Washington, D.C. – Blackfeet leaders and conservationists celebrated today that they, along with the federal government, have reached a negotiated agreement with Solenex, LLC to permanently retire the last remaining federal oil and gas lease in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
The settlement agreement marks the culmination of a 40-year effort by tribal leaders, conservationists, hunters and anglers, and other Montanans to prevent oil and gas drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine. Located adjacent to Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the area is considered sacred ground by the Blackfeet Nation due to its deep cultural and historical significance to Blackfeet people as well as vital habit and a migration corridor for some of Montana’s most treasured wildlife species including elk, wolverines, grizzly bears, and westslope cutthroat trout.
The 6,247-acre lease held by Solenex was one of 47 oil and gas leases originally issued by the Reagan Administration in the Badger-Two Medicine in the early 1980s. With today’s settlement agreement, all of these leases in the area have now been permanently eliminated without any development having occurred, ending the threat of drilling in this wild, roadless area once and for all.
Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray, one of the leading champions for protecting the area’s cultural values welcomed the settlement. “Hearing this great news, my first thoughts were of all those Blackfeet individuals that did not live to see this day,” Murray said. “I am happy to see this oil and gas lease go away in the Badger-Two Medicine. We are back to where we were 40 years ago. However, during these 40 years a lot has transpired. Scientific studies have been done by Dr. Maria Zedeno, University of Arizona, proving our occupation of the area well beyond 12,000 years. In 2006, Senator Conrad Burns sponsored a bill in the 109th Congress that was passed that same year which prohibits further oil and gas leasing of federally controlled lands within the Badger-Two Medicine. Basically, the area now has permanent protection. I have no hard feelings about this protracted clash of cultures. I’m just relieved it is over. The Badger-Two Medicine is significant to the Blackfeet way of life from the past, now and in the future. My heartfelt thanks goes out to so many great people involved in this struggle for the last four decades.”
Murray and others also thanked Hansjörg Wyss and the Wyss Foundation for recognizing the importance of Blackfeet sacred lands and for providing money critical to secure the deal.
“Visiting the Badger-Two Medicine is an exceptional experience,” said Molly McUsic the president of the Wyss Foundation. “It is a landscape with diverse wildlife and spectacular open spaces, where a person can feel the enormity of our natural world. It is the traditional home, cultural center, and sacred ground of the Blackfeet People. Today is a pivotal moment in righting past wrongs and preserving this land for generations to come. Thanks to the multi-decade fight by the Blackfeet People, we can finally say that these sacred lands will remain exactly how they should – natural, wild, and undeveloped.”
In recent years, the vast majority of leaseholders voluntarily relinquished their leases in recognition of this world-class cultural and natural heritage. The U.S. Department of the Interior cancelled the three remaining leases in 2016 and 2017, after Solenex sued to force the government to approve development on its lease. Solenex subsequently challenged this decision in federal court. Blackfeet tribal and conservation groups, including Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, Pikuni Traditionalist Association, The Wilderness Society, and Wild Montana, represented by Earthjustice, jointly intervened to defend the government’s cancellation decision. The settlement agreement ends this long-running legal dispute before it was about to be reviewed by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. for a second time.
The landmark settlement elicited an outpouring of elation and gratitude from representatives of the tribal and conservation organizations involved, who responded to the news with the following statements.
Jack Gladstone, co-founder of the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance said, “Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance recognizes Solenex and all the former leaseholders who have retired their exploratory leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Badger-Two Medicine is a vital vertebra within the “Backbone of the World.” From our homelands, waters are cast towards the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. From our homelands, the "Backbone of the World” ensures water, both for North America, and for Mother Earth’s re-creation. Our Alliance expresses gratitude to all participants who contributed to this settlement which will safeguard these life-giving waters.”
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented the tribal and conservation coalition in the lawsuit and settlement negotiations said: “Today’s settlement successfully concludes a remarkable coalition effort to defend the natural beauty and irreplaceable cultural value of the Badger-Two Medicine region. When the coalition stood up to defend this region against the leaseholder’s original lawsuit filing in June of 2013, we had no idea that we were embarking on more than a decade of litigation, with many twists and turns along the way. But the Badger-Two Medicine region, all the people and wildlife who depend on it, and today’s result were well worth the fight.”
Peter Metcalf of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, a community-based conservation group situated on the edge of the Badger-Two Medicine in East Glacier Park, said: “The elimination of the last oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine is a huge victory for everyone who cherishes our wild public lands, amazing fish and wildlife species, and clean, free-flowing rivers and streams that we are so fortunate to still have in relative abundance here in Montana. Today’s settlement is a testament to the power of committed, everyday people to fight to protect the places and animals we hold dear, as well as to what we can accomplish when we join together in common cause to build a brighter, shared future for people and wild nature.”
Michael Jamison, of the National Parks Conservation Association, said: “The significance of today’s agreement goes far beyond the protection of the Badger-Two Medicine. It shows the importance of respecting tribal rights, cultural practices and sacred land. It facilitates wildlife movement to and from adjacent protected areas like Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. And it demonstrates what is still possible when we come together as Montanans—Native and non-Native, conservationists, hunters, anglers, ranchers, business owners – to stand up for what we value in this state: our wildlife, our public lands, our communities, and our outdoor heritage.”
Tyson Running Wolf of the Pikuni Traditionalist Association and a Montana state legislator, former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member, and hunting outfitter said: “This is about more than just land. This is about an entire way of life, and it’s about how we are going to heal our communities and move forward as a Nation. We want to acknowledge that it was a partnership between many that has led us to today’s victory. In Washington, DC, Senator Tester was a real leader for Indian Country and repeatedly proved he stands with us to defend the Badger. The retirement of this last lease represents a path to a strong and healthy future for Blackfeet people. Blackfeet will have a say in that future. We’ve been here since time immemorial, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Jennifer Ferenstein of The Wilderness Society said: “Reaching a settlement feels like a heavy burden has been lifted from our shoulders. From this day forward, we’ll be able to look to the mountains and waters of the Badger-Two Medicine and know that the specter of desecration has vanished.”
John Todd, Executive Director of Wild Montana said: “The retirement of the Solenex lease marks the culmination of an epic 40-year effort to save the entirety of the Rocky Mountain Front from oil and gas development. It will forever exemplify the resolve and perseverance of the people of Montana, especially the Blackfeet, when beloved wild public lands and waters are at risk of industrialization. It will also serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for the fights we have ahead of us to remove the threat of oil and gas development from other revered lands across the state.”
Background: The controversy over oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine stretches back to at least 1974 when, in response to the potential leasing of the area, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council officially recognized the area as sacred land, declaring that “disturbance of said Sacred Ground without consent of said Council shall not be allowed hereafter.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of the Interior, under the leadership of Secretary James Watt, auctioned off much of the area to oil and gas developers for a dollar an acre in 1981 & 1982 without the Tribe’s approval.
Ever since, tribal leaders, local community members, and conservationists worked tirelessly through the administrative appeals process and later the courts to eliminate these leases. The ensuing struggle has resulted in widespread recognition and stronger safeguards for the areas outstanding cultural and ecological values. In 2002, the majority of the area was determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural District due to its on-going importance to the cultural practices and identify of Blackfeet people, as the site of Blackfeet creation stories, and source of many traditional foods and medicines. (The eligibility determination was later expanded in 2014 to include the entire Badger-Two Medicine and parts of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a total of 165,588 acres along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front). Then in 2006, Congress permanently withdrew the entire Rocky Mountain Front, including the Badger-Two Medicine, from future energy leasing and hard rock mining. The Forest Service closed the entire area to motorized vehicles in 2009. Most recently, the 2021 Land and Resource Management Plan for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest directed managers to protect the remarkable natural and cultural values of the Badger-Two Medicine as well as to expand the involvement of the Blackfeet Nation in decisions affecting the area.
In addition to the Blackfeet Nation and the organizations directly involved in today’s settlement, oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine has been opposed by the Blackfoot Confederacy; the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which represents eleven tribes in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming; the National Congress of American Indians; Glacier County Commissioners; many federal leaders or agencies; and various sportsmen organizations, civic groups, and 79% of Montanans according to a 2020 University of Montana Statewide Survey.
About the National Parks Conservation Association: Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.6 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.
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