Too Sacred To Drill
As Earthjustice built its legal case to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area, the Blackfeet Nation built a movement, drawn together by collective outrage over the oil industry’s demands to drill a treasured landscape.
In September 2022, a federal district court in Washington, D.C., reinstated the last remaining oil and gas drilling lease in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine region, adjacent to Glacier National Park.
The wildly unpopular decision prolongs a decades-long fight to protect lands and waters sacred to the Blackfeet Nation and critical for wildlife habitat. The Badger-Two coalition, represented by Earthjustice, is fighting the decision to reinstate the lease in court.
For more than 10,000 years, the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park in Montana has provided strength, subsistence, and cultural identity for members of the Blackfeet Nation.
The Blackfeet believe that their people were created among the mountains and springs that rise from where Badger Creek and the Two Medicine River trace their headwaters. But the Blackfeet aren’t the only ones who value the region. The oil and gas industry also have their eyes on the area — and for more than 30 years, they’ve been fighting to drill the hell out of it.
Kendall Edmo, a Blackfeet Tribal member, became involved in the fight to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area after learning about the region’s cultural significance to her people — and the threat of oil and gas drilling.
During her childhood, Edmo wasn’t immersed in the Blackfeet language or traditional ways. That changed after she graduated from college and returned to the reservation.
As a Tribal liaison for the National Parks Conservation Association, Edmo met with Tribal elders who took her under their wing and mentored her in Blackfeet history and spirituality. They explained the significance of the Badger-Two Medicine area. “Our cultural connection to this land is deeper than us just occupying it,” Edmo says. “It’s a vital connection to our identity.”
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration issued 47 oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area to oilmen for $1 per acre. The leases were granted without Tribal consultation, review of significant cultural values or proper evaluation of environmental impact — all required by federal law — and therefore violate both the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.
By 1997, a more conservation-minded Forest Service placed a moratorium on any new oil and gas leases along the Rocky Mountain Front, including the Badger-Two Medicine area. Since then, many companies and leaseholders have voluntarily relinquished their leases. A handful of leases remained, though, sitting in legal limbo for decades due to a series of suspensions by the federal government.
One of those leaseholders is the Solenex company in Louisiana. In June 2013, Solenex sued the federal government, alleging that it had unreasonably delayed the company’s right to develop its lease. The fight to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area had just taken on a new urgency.
The fight over the Badger-Two Medicine area is just one in a long-running series of Tribal lands grabs initiated by the U.S. government.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, a series of treaties reduced the Blackfeet’s aboriginal homeland by millions of acres. Then in 1895 the Blackfeet lost even more land after a controversial agreement reduced the reservation by another 800,000 acres. This land is located in the “Backbone of the World,” also known as the Rocky Mountain Front, which the Blackfeet consider to be spiritually sacred lands. Part of this ceded strip of former reservation land is the Badger-Two Medicine area, one of the Blackfeet’s most sacred places.
Under the 1895 treaty, the Tribe sold some mineral rights within the Badger-Two Medicine area to the federal government, but they retained the rights to cut wood, hunt, and fish on the land. Some Tribal members maintain that they never gave the federal government the right to oil and gas underlying the area. Even if they did, oil and gas drilling threatens the Blackfeet’s long-standing cultural and spiritual interest in this sacred landscape.
Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person led the Blackfeet people in blocking the Badger-Two Medicine leases and drilling proposals from moving forward for more than 30 years.
In a letter to President Obama, he asked that the administration cancel the remaining leases, explaining that “these ancient lands are among the most revered landscapes in North America and should not be sacrificed, for any price.”
Says Chief Old Person, “These lands, they’re not our lands. But we’re the keepers.”
“Our identity, every cell in our bodies from the time of contact, was composed of this landscape,” says Jack Gladstone, who has likened the drilling of the Badger-Two Medicine area to fracking the Sistine Chapel.
Gladstone is a Tribal member who tours the country performing songs about American Indian history and heritage. He’s also the founder of the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, which works to protect the waters beneath the Blackfeet’s historic Tribal lands.
For the Blackfeet, who have lost so much over the past few centuries, the Badger-Two Medicine area remains one of the last strongholds of the Tribe’s values. The landscape is a critical part of the oral history, creation stories, and ceremonies of the Blackfeet people. For centuries, they have used these mountains and forests to hunt elk and other game, gather plants, collect lodge poles, and search for supernatural powers. Today, many Tribal members travel to the Badger-Two Medicine area for prayer and vision quests.
When the Reagan administration first issued the Badger-Two Medicine area leases, wildlife biologists, hunters and other Montanans joined the Tribes to protest the decision. Lou Bruno was one of them.
Originally from New York, Bruno moved to East Glacier, Montana, in 1975 after growing tired of seeing wild places taken over by industrial development. One cold night in 1984, he attended a public meeting about a proposed oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area. After that meeting, it became clear to Bruno that the Forest Service was intent on drilling the land rather than managing it as a public resource that creates the greatest good for the most people.
“I felt like it was happening all over again — that I had come to a place only to see it destroyed — and this time I wasn’t going to let it happen,” he says.
Shortly after, Bruno and others created the grassroots, nonprofit organization Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance. The group has raised awareness about the Badger-Two Medicine area and successfully appealed the government leases for three decades.
Earthjustice’s Tim Preso has spent most of the past two decades using the courts to protect wildlife and wild lands in the northern Rocky Mountains region. As former managing attorney of the Northern Rockies office in Bozeman, Montana, and now as the head of Earthjustice’s new Biodiversity Defense program, Preso’s team has successfully protected species including wolves, grizzly bears, and bison for decades.
“It is my privilege to speak for these wild places and wild creatures in the federal court system,” says Preso.
In 2015, the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance and the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance — both represented by Earthjustice — joined 10 conservation organizations in supporting the Blackfeet Tribe’s request that the government cancel all oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area. (See timeline of the legal case.)
The legal question at hand is whether the remaining oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area were ever valid in the first place. According to Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, they were not.
In the 1980s, at the same time that the Badger-Two Medicine area leases were issued, the government issued similarly flawed leases in Montana elsewhere along the Rocky Mountain Front. A federal court has since ruled that these leases were illegal and subsequently cancelled them. Earthjustice has requested that the government cancel the Badger-Two Medicine area leases on the same grounds.
“All of these leases are cut from the same cloth and should share the same fate,” explains Preso.
While Earthjustice’s Preso built his legal case, the Blackfeet built a movement, drawn together by the collective outrage over the oil industry’s demands to drill such a treasured landscape.
The loss of cultural connections to primary religious lands is a concern for many American Indian Tribes. The Blackfeet’s use of the Badger-Two Medicine area has been unbroken over time, and they feel they must protect it — not just for themselves, but for future generations. To that end, the entire Blackfoot Confederacy, the National Congress of American Indians and all Tribal nations in Montana and Wyoming have vowed to protect it.
Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester and the band Pearl Jam have also thrown in their support. In addition, thousands of people have signed a petition asking Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to cancel the leases.
In the years since the illegal drilling leases were granted, many steps have been taken to protect the area, including: designation as a Traditional Cultural District; a permanent prohibition on all future leasing; a ban on all motorized uses; voluntary retirement of nearly all historic leases; and bipartisan recommendation by both the U.S. Senate and Trump administration for full federal protection under a national monument or other land designation.
On June 16, 2020, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld the cancellation of the last remaining federal oil and gas lease in the area. (In September 2022, a federal district court reinstated the lease, and the Badger-Two coalition is currently fighting this decision in court.
“This ruling rightly rejects Solenex’s effort to resurrect an illegal oil and gas lease that never should have been issued in the first place,” said Tim Preso, Earthjustice attorney. “The value of the Badger-Two Medicine region is in its wild beauty and irreplaceable cultural significance for the Blackfeet Nation — not in oil and gas.”
As the next generation steps in to defend the Badger-Two Medicine area, tribal members like Kendall Edmo hope to inspire those of her generation and younger to learn more about traditional knowledge and sacred landscapes like the Badger-Two Medicine area. She plans to pass on what she’s learned to her son and daughter so that they, too, have a deep physical and spiritual connection to the land.
“Coming from a younger generation doesn’t change the fact that my culture, identity and spirituality is interconnected with our lands. Same goes for my children,” says Edmo. “The Badger-Two Medicine reminds us of who we are and who we were.”