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How a Gas- and Oil-Rich Area of Montana Wilderness Was Saved From Drilling

"If one drop were spilled, the place would be ruined."

BROWNING, MT -- Nowhere in the West does the rolling sea of the high plains meet the mountains with such dramatic effect as in northwestern Montana. State Highway 2 stretches through the northern Hi-Line for miles of coulees and intermittent creeks, antelope, buffalo and Plains Indian country, crossing the seemingly endless, expansive prairie that gives the Big Sky Country its name, before crashing abruptly into the Rocky Mountain Front. A patchwork of national park and national forests, reservation and rangeland, the sparsely populated Front provides one of the last best refuges in the lower 48 states for grizzly bears, and shelters the nation's largest bighorn sheep herd. A great span of wilderness totaling five million acres that extends from the state's capital in Helena to the Canadian border, the Front hosts every single species of animal that lived here when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived 200 years ago, with the exception of free-ranging bison.

Oil and gas companies have coveted the Rocky Mountain Front -- known to geologists as the Montana Thrust Belt -- for decades. The kind of violent tectonics responsible for this dramatic scenery tends to open channels for mineralization and leave pockets for oil and gas reservoirs. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2002 that the Belt might harbor some 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 109 million barrels of oil and 240 million barrels of natural gas liquids (heavier hydrocarbons like propane, butane and ethane). Environmentalists argue these amounts are miniscule compared to our national needs; industry folks counter that every bit helps. But no one really knows what lies underground, because in 2006 Congress banned leasing along the Front.

The ban capped off a 30-year campaign to Save the Front (the rallying cry of the coalition of ranchers, outfitters and environmentalists who oppose drilling there), but probably had less to do with their political power, and nearly everything to do with the Blackfeet Nation.

The Blackfeet reservation sits at the north end of the Front, straddling the foothills abutting Glacier National Park to the west. The Blackfeet are large people -- imposing in stature and big-hearted, a physical and spiritual match to the landscape. One of only six tribes in the United States whose reservation occupies their ancestral homeland, their 19th century reputation as fierce and fearsome warriors survives to this day. The Blackfoot Confederacy includes three groups in Canada, with the Blackfeet (or South Piegan, or Pikuni) the sole tribe settling south of the border. The Confederacy's territory once stretched from the Great Slave Lake of the Northwest Territories to the north end of present-day Yellowstone National Park.

Historians date the Blackfeet's tenure in the Northern Rockies at a mere 300 years (which, as it turns out, is when the first Europeans encountered the Blackfoot Confederacy in Canada). But as one archeologist told me, the combination of linguistics, oral tradition, mythology, and archeology makes possible an 8,500 year time span or more. Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray cites 10,000-year-old archeological sites in the nearby mountains tied to his people. The Nation's website proclaims: "We come from right here."

At the heart of "here" is a smallish piece of land, 130,000 acres southwest of the reservation. Technically, the Badger-Two Medicine is national forest land, and to the naked eye is not distinguishable from the rest of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. But the Badger is the key to what happened here and why.

The Badger-Two Medicine is part of the Backbone of the World. It's full of mountains named for the supernatural beings who live there, "other-than-human persons," as one writer calls them: Morningstar, Poia, the colorful Thunder bird, Wind Maker, and Medicine Grizzly. "It is precisely this mythic understanding of kinship and reciprocity with the land -- all rocks, plants and animals -- which empowers the Badger-Two Medicine as a sacred landscape," writes Jay Vest in his 1988 article, "Traditional Blackfeet Religion and the Sacred Badger-Two Medicine Wildlands."

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