In the Blackfeet’s creation, they tell stories of how their people began to suffer and die long ago. Seeing their suffering, the creator, Istapatipeop returned to the tribe and led them into the land of mountains and rolling hills and gave them the gift of communication with the creator and other spirits. This land includes what is now known as the Badger – Two Medicine and is of great importance of spiritual and resourceful power to the Blackfeet people because it is there that the spirits remain and where the Blackfeet can go to be alone near creator sun, Napi Natuse while still standing on mother earth, Sukametope, so that their prayers can be heard.
A Blackfeet tribal member who grew up in the Two Medicine area spoke on what the area meant to him. He explained, “I’ve lived nearly my whole life on the Two Medicine. You can go back in there and get lost. It’s like going back in time. It’s always been a place where you can go back and pray. It’s very spiritual. It speaks to you. It speaks to your very core, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that.”
In June of 1982, a series of Leases to drill oil and natural gas were permitted within the Badger – Two Medicine area by the Bureau of Land Management that is housed within the Department of Interior. One of those Leases were issued to Sidney Longwell of the Louisiana-based company, Solenex LLC that originally paid $1 per acre of land totaling $6,247.00.
In July of 1983, a statement was issued by the Department of Interior amending its lease regulations to make clear that “Leases shall be subject to cancellation if improperly issued.”
Not only is the area culturally significant to the Blackfeet, but it serves as a corridor for wildlife traveling between Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall wilderness and the Blackfeet Indian reservation. For those reasons, the leases were suspended in the nineties and a bill was passed in 2006 to prohibit any Leases from being created in the future. While other energy companies voluntarily relinquished their leases in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area, Solenex has long-since fought through legal efforts to preserve the drilling rights.
In 2016, the Lease was cancelled by Sally Jewell, the U.S. Interior Secretary of the time on March 17th due to the drilling that would violate both NEPA and the Historic Preservation Act. The Secretary further acknowledged that the agency had failed to meet the requirements in issuing the Lease in particular, that “The agency had failed to undertake the required consultation efforts prior to issuance” and “Instead, wrongly delayed compliance with that Act to the drilling approval stage”. As a result, the Secretary determined that the Lease was voidable.
The 40-year-old saga continues as U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington, D.C. sided with Solanex in his decision on September 9th of this year that rejected the Secretary’s decision and the Federal Government’s claim that drilling and road building in the area would compromise the area’s ecological and cultural value. Leon declared that the lease had been properly issued and in turn voided the lease cancellation with Solenex.
“We disagree with the Judge’s decision.” Said Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Pikuni Traditionalist Association (PTA), who represent the cultural and religious interests of members of the Blackfeet Nation. “The company that holds this lease has a proposal to build about 6 miles of road into this area and then develop a drill pad and drill an exploratory well and build a bridge across that Two Medicine River and we just don’t think that this is the place for that kind of activity.”
John Murray, a Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and leader of the PTA explained that the battle between the drilling rights and preservation of the land has been exhausting. “It’s like we’re out in this corral, you know. And so, we can argue all we want, using law but we can’t get outside of that corral. And so, I think the way that we think about the area is much bigger than a place to put well. It’s a part of who we are.”
A Blackfeet tribal member spoke about his pessimism towards the oil wells. “It’s not an issue of if something breaks, it’s when. You see it all the time in these areas on the reservation that have oil wells. There’s oil everywhere and damage from the pipes that they must put in and, when something breaks it takes years to fix. That particular area means so much to me personally, my family, my friends, my tribe. And, I think that it should be taken into consideration as just not a piece of ground that they can go dig up.”
The district court’s decision is being appealed, and both the Blackfeet tribe and other conservation groups hope for a positive outcome in their favor. “We believe that the judge that made the ruling, that he may be wrong in the law and we’re very confident that we’re going to win this case.” Said Murray.
“That’s the next step is to move forward with this appeals process and we’re going to take every step that the laws allow to make sure to preserve the integrity and the undeveloped nature of the badger two medicine.”
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