How tribes led the fight over Badger-Two Medicine oil and gas leases

As a young girl, Blackfeet tribal member Helen Augare-Carlson remembers her grandfather anticipating his yearly hunting trip in the Badger-Two Medicine region of northern Montana. “It fulfilled him,” says Augare-Carlson.

When she returned to the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning in the early 2000s, the Forest Service was beginning to establish a “traditional cultural district” within the Badger-Two Medicine, a designation that recognizes an area’s historic value. It also requires an extensive review process that calls into question activities such as oil and gas exploration. During the Reagan administration, more than 40 oil and gas leases had been issued in the Badger-Two Medicine – 18 of which remain today – and many of the tribe’s roughly 15,000 enrolled members believe that those leases threaten both wildlife habitat and the area’s wild character.

Augare-Carlson agreed that the Badger-Two Medicine should stay untouched. She decided to reveal the kind of connection her grandfather had to the land by coordinating with an ongoing project called Art for the Sky.  The project’s originator, Daniel Dancer, creates living “paintings” of people through aerial photographs, and for their picture, the Blackfeet chose to form a bear, an animal that embodies wildness. More than 360 students participated, and Augare-Carlson used the experience to discuss the tribe’s ancestral ties to the region as well as its continued relevance to their lives today.

“Just seeing how much impact it had with the youth was really encouraging. They were all excited to be out there and participate and maintain the area,” she says.

The traditional cultural district was approved by the Forest Service, but even though the agency placed a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the largely roadless area, the leases remained. That state of limbo persisted until 2013, when one of the lessees, Solenex LLC, a Louisiana-based company, sued the Interior Department for delaying its ability to develop the lease. That lawsuit, filed by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, brought national attention to the issue.

During the years that the tribe spent trying to convince the Forest Service and BLM to cancel the leases, national and regional environmental organizations had signed on as allies. They included the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance as well as others. After generations of mistrust of outsiders, however, the tribal administration was reluctant to accept either their involvement or their help. But after elections in the summer of 2014 brought in a new administration amenable to working with outside groups, a partnership has flourished.

“We’re here to support their effort,” says Casey Perkins, Rocky Mountain field director for the Montana Wilderness Association. Compared with past efforts, Perkins and her environmental colleagues have embraced the value of letting the people on the ground have the spotlight.  “We get people’s attention when tribal leaders speak out.”

John Murray, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, says the primary role of the environmental groups has been to navigate political channels and attract and facilitate media coverage.

Over the past two years, the coalition has collaborated on legal strategies, pressed for expanding the designated traditional cultural district, and elevated the issue on a national scale. As a result, Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has become a strong advocate for cancelling the leases, as has Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Numerous papers have also run editorials supporting the coalition’s position. Publicity reached a fever pitch last spring when the legendary rock band Pearl Jam, which has Montana roots, publicly opposed drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine and posted a petition about the effort on its website.

The hard work and willingness to break down historic barriers paid off. On April 1, the Interior Department cancelled one of the leases, saying that the Solenex lease was improperly issued in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historical Preservation Act. Even with the lease’s cancellation, however, the partners aren’t sure about the future of the Badger-Two Medicine. Solenex may challenge the Interior Department’s decision, and 17 other leases remain in limbo. Meanwhile, the Blackfeet largely oppose any official wilderness designation, because tribal leaders say they want to share management responsibilities with the Forest Service – something both Perkins and Jennifer Ferenstein with The Wilderness Society say they could support. Despite the uncertainty, most people involved in the coalition remain hopeful.

“It’s nice to see them (Anglos) learning and trying to understand our perspective. There have been so many times in the past when natives and non-natives clashed over management practices,” says Augare-Carlson. “Now we’re coming to the table equally and able to communicate. It’s a really big step for both sides.”