Too Wild to Drill

A federal advisory panel has urged the Obama administration to cancel or withdraw leases for natural gas drilling near Glacier National Park in Montana after finding that the wild and scenic area is too sacred for drilling.

Blackfeet Nation tribal member Jack Gladstone near tribal lands in the Badger-Two Medicine on a smoky summer evening in August 2015.
Blackfeet Nation tribal member Jack Gladstone near tribal lands in the Badger-Two Medicine on a smoky summer evening in August 2015. (Rebecca Drobis for Earthjustice)

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Some places are simply too special to be drilled. That’s the conclusion that a federal advisory panel recently came to after reviewing a long-suspended drilling lease on land near Montana’s Glacier National Park.

The 130,000-acre pristine landscape, known as the Badger-Two Medicine region, serves as critical habitat for grizzly bears, elk and westslope cutthroat trout. The area is also culturally significant to tribal members of the Blackfeet Nation, who believe that their people were created among its mountains and springs. For more than 10,000 years, the Badger-Two Medicine region has provided strength, subsistence and cultural identity for tribal members.

“It’s our last remaining chapel,” tribal member Jack Gladstone told me during my visit to the area this past summer. 

Despite its cultural significance, in the 1980s the Reagan administration unilaterally issued 47 leases in the region to oilmen for $1 an acre, over the objections of the Blackfeet. Since then, the Blackfeet and others have worked tirelessly to convince leaseholders to relinquish their leases in the Badger-Two Medicine region. Though many leaseholders have since done so, a handful of leases remain, sitting in legal limbo over the past three decades due to a series of suspensions by the federal government.

Now one of those leaseholders—Solenex LLC—is demanding to exercise its lease rights by drilling an exploratory oil and gas well in the northern end of the Badger-Two Medicine region.  Solenex’s proposed development would transform an undeveloped roadless area into an industrial site with 5.7 miles of new road construction, a bridge across the Two Medicine River and a four-acre drill pad.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s recent recommendation to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management offers hope that the Badger-Two Medicine region can yet be saved. It determined that oil and gas development would ruin the area’s cultural and traditional values for the Blackfeet.  For this reason, the council recommended that the government cancel the Solenex lease along with the other remaining leases in the area.

Though not legally binding, government agencies must now take this recommendation into account and respond to the council’s findings prior to making final decisions on the lease. The Forest Service has committed to providing its recommendation to the Bureau of Land Management by Oct. 31. From there, the Bureau has until November 30 to determine whether to allow development or cancel the leases permanently.

“The Badger-Two Medicine leases were illegally issued in the first place and should be canceled for that reason alone, but now the advisory panel has made clear that lease cancellation is also the only means of protecting the unique cultural importance of the threatened lands for the Blackfeet people,” says Tim Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is supporting the tribe’s legal fight against Solenex. “The government should do the right thing and cancel these leases.”

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.