US Interior Department moves to cancel Solenex lease in the Badger-Two Medicine
Today, the US Department of the Interior announced its intention to cancel the Solenex LLC oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area. This decision echoes the call by many that the Badger-Two Medicine region – a vital wildland link connecting the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Glacier National Park, and an indispensable stronghold of Blackfeet culture – should not be industrialized by roads, bridges and drill rigs.
“The Secretary of the Interior has inherent authority, under her general managerial power over public lands, to cancel leases issued in violation of a statute or regulation… Although the BLM has not completed its decision making processes, it has tentatively concluded the Lease was issued without properly complying with NEPA and the NHPA,” officials wrote in a report to the court. The court filing indicates that the government intends to complete this process by December 11, 2015.
Conservation groups responded to this step forward with enthusiasm.
“It’s so satisfying to see our country’s leadership on the right side of history,” said Kendall Flint, president of the local conservation group, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance. “This is 2015, and our nation is finally having these vital conversations about diversity, identity, culture and landscape. It would be a tragedy to industrialize the last refuge of Blackfeet lifeways and tradition, and it would be heartbreaking to dismantle our last best wildlands in the hope of exporting profits to a few out-of-state developers.” The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance has long sought cancelation of the leases, which were sold amid heated controversy for just $1 per acre more than 30 years ago.
The 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, and is bordered by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The Department of the Interior under Secretary James Watt granted the leases in the early 1980s, sparking immediate and prolonged opposition from local residents, conservationists, and the Blackfeet Nation, who have since maintained the leases were issued illegally, violating bedrock environmental laws, and without required Tribal consultation.
Interior officials concurred, and on Monday they released their plan for canceling the Solenex lease.
“There are places appropriate for developing energy resources, and there are places we must treasure for other values,” said Michael Jamison, of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Montana’s wild open Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier National Park region represent the very best of our natural heritage. Leaders at the Departments of Agriculture and Interior have shown tremendous wisdom in finding a balance for our country, and in working to protect this world-class region. They deserve our gratitude, and the gratitude of generations still to come.”
The 1980s-era leases have long stood in stark contrast to a legacy of conservation throughout Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front region. Beginning with the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910 and bolstered by creation of the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913, conservation measures have since included: the creation of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1932); Sun River Wildlife Management Area (1948); Bob Marshall Wilderness Area (1964); Scapegoat Wilderness Area (1972); Great Bear Wilderness Area (1978); and passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (2014). Within the boundaries of the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area, recent conservation measures include a Congressional ban on any future federal oil/gas leasing (2006), and a prohibition on motorized travel (2011). The entire Badger-Two Medicine region has been designated a “Traditional Cultural District” under the National Historic Preservation Act, in recognition of its importance to Blackfeet tradition and culture.
Since the misguided leasing of more than 150,000 public-land acres in this region, many companies have voluntarily retired their holdings, citing the Badger-Two Medicine’s world-class natural and cultural treasures. Combined, more than 110,000 acres of leases have been relinquished. However, a handful of companies have declined offers to buy-out or swap their leases for holdings in less sensitive areas. One of those companies – Solenex, LLC – filed suit in 2013, demanding development of their highly-contested lease area.
In response to a judge’s order in that case, the government on Monday declared its intent to cancel the illegal lease in the Badger-Two Medicine.
“Montanans have put a lot of time and money into forging partnerships that protect public and private lands along the Crown of the Continent. The Badger has long been at risk from industrial development. Today’s decision signals that roads and well pads are not an option for this wild and sacred place.” said Jennifer Ferenstein of The Wilderness Society.
Conservation partners joined with the Blackfeet people more than 30 years ago to try and cancel the leases. Together, they have fought to protect this area’s ancient heritage, wildlife habitats and key migration corridors. In recent years, they have been joined by a growing chorus calling for lease cancellation, including: the Blackfoot Confederacy, Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, National Congress of American Indians, Montana’s senior Senator Jon Tester, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Glacier County Commissioners, retired Glacier National Park superintendents, retired US Forest Service and BLM leadership, hunting and angling groups, local ranchers and residents, and even the rock band Pearl Jam.
This fall, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended lease cancellation, writing that industrialization of such sensitive sites could not be mitigated. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack concurred, and on Oct. 30 advised that Interior officials should cancel the leases.
“It’s rewarding and humbling, actually, to see the many people who have come together, from so many different walks of life, on behalf of the Badger-Two Medicine,” said Casey Perkins, of the Montana Wilderness Association. “The fact that the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior came to this very welcome conclusion is no accident. People such as Senator Tester and Governor Bullock have shown real leadership in joining the countless Montana voices who have called for protection of this remarkable region.”
Now that Interior has announced its intention, Solenex will have 10 days to respond.
“Through this decision, the United States government has righted a longstanding moral and legal wrong,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “But while the right decision has been made, the leases are not yet canceled and the fight is not over. We stand ready to take whatever steps remain necessary to ensure that the threat of industrial development in the Badger-Two Medicine region is eliminated once and for all.”
“This is a very important step in the right direction,” added Kendall Flint, “and the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, along with Senator Tester and Governor Bullock, deserve tremendous thanks for their courage, leadership and wisdom. This decision puts us on a track to do the right thing, and to finally protect the Badger-Two Medicine.”
And while conservationists applauded Monday’s long-awaited decision, they recognize there is much work to be done before all of the remaining leases are finally canceled, once and for all.
About National Parks Conservation Association
Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than one million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.
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