How a Gas- and Oil-Rich Area of Montana Wilderness Was Saved From Drilling
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."
When oil companies Chevron and Fina were poised in 1993 to send in their drilling rigs, Floyd "Tiny Man" Heavy Runner told reporters, "What you're doing is putting us on the road to extinction. We are here to notify you that we have no alternatives. We are not going to stand back."
Heavy Runner, leader of the warrior Brave Dog society, explained that the nature of the Blackfeet's relationship to the Badger-Two Medicine is not something that can be taken into account by the oil companies' talk of "improved technology," "small footprints" and "seasonal occupancy." If one drop were spilled, he said, the place would be ruined.
The gist of Heavy Runner's argument speaks to a profound connection between a given landscape and the humans who occupy it; a bond of such intimacy that a seemingly innocuous wound to the former is felt by the latter. For the Blackfeet, the integrity of the Badger gives strength to the inseparable threads of spirituality, language and culture, from which is woven the tapestry of their lives.
Blackfeet Community College instructor and journalist Woody Kipp explains: "[T]hose places are sacred places, and there's usually a story that goes with it. So our stories, legends, and mythology go with the landscape. And trying to convey that to mainstream people is just ... just almost impossible, because the concepts are not there. Our language says something different about the landscape than English. English is a great language for commerce, for recreation, for sex, whatever. But it is not a sacred language, as our language is."
Kipp was a founding member of the Pikuni Traditionalist Association ("not your grandmother's PTA," he jokes), a group formed to fend off drilling. He elaborates: "What environmentalists call ecosystems we say is a part of the fabric of life. Mitakuye oyasin, it's Lakota and it means we're all related. And when I say we are all related, it doesn't mean just you and I as humans: we're related to the rocks and the trees and the air and the whole thing ... that the physicists call a unified system.
"So when these environmentalists came to us and wanted to know if we were aware of the oil and gas wells that had been leased in the Badger-Two Medicine, we told them no, our tribal council didn't even know about it ... But we joined with these white environmentalists in an effort to stop the drilling because we understood what they were saying."
If there's an Anglo name synonymous with the campaign to save the Badger-Two Medicine, it's Lou Bruno. A biology teacher by training, Bruno moved to the reservation in 1974 to teach remedial reading. As a gay man in 1970s Montana, he felt like an outcast pretty much everywhere he went. But he needed the job -- the Blackfeet needed a warm body. "I hated this place when I got here, I have to tell you," he says. "I felt like I was being exiled to Siberia. The winters set in really early. You go over [to the Flathead Valley] shopping and you feel like a Martian: You're wearing winter coats and they're still in shorts."
The job itself was great: he got to spend hours a day with small classes, and felt like he was doing some good. And he began to appreciate the landscape. "I love the diversity here and the fact that, you know, unlike Yellowstone, you have all of these forest types and you have all of these plant species that are not down there ... At certain times of the year, there's no place else I'd rather be."
In 1982, the Forest Service sold nearly four dozen leases in the Badger, and soon after two companies -- Chevron and Fina -- applied for permits to drill. The agency held an informational meeting in the reservation resort town of East Glacier, and Bruno attended. "They were giving us a lot of bullshit. They were telling us a lot of lies. And basically it made me so angry that it got me activated," he recalls.
He and others started the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance and began fighting the plan on two fronts. With the help of a pro bono lawyer and the Montana Wilderness Association, the group stalled with appeals and lawsuits. Meanwhile, they organized the locals. Bruno led hikes into the mountains, he talked with his colleagues. "I just got possessed about it. I went around to all the people at school and the Native American people and the white people. There were lots of aides and janitors and things like that. And I knew that they did not support the drilling, you know. Did not want any development up there. And so I told them, 'if you don't feel comfortable writing a letter, I'll ghost write one for you and I'll run it by you then.' And I would interview them and find out what they wanted to say."
Lea Whitford, director of the Blackfeet studies program at the community college, invited Bruno -- among others -- to come and speak with her students. "He was real passionate about keeping the area pristine and he talked about the animals and the relationship that people have with not only landscape, but with the habitat in the area.
"It does something for you as a Blackfoot person to know the relationship to the land. It makes you more conscious. It makes you a better steward. But in that growth of learning your relationship to landscape, you also have these inner battles of well, economically, how do we fit in the whole scheme of it? So we have those ... things we have to weigh real heavily when we're making decisions about land."
The Blackfeet lost title to the Badger in 1896, at the end of a century marked by deadly cycles of measles, scarlet fever and smallpox, the near eradication of buffalo leading to the Starvation Winter of 1883-84, and the "scorched earth" policies of the United States Army, culminating most famously in the 1870 massacre of Heavy Runner's peaceful camp by Major Eugene Baker. In less than 50 years, a series of ratified and unofficial treaties whittled the Blackfeet territory down to the corner of Montana they now occupy. The Blackfeet who agreed in 1896 to cede their claim to the Badger, and to the strip of land that now comprises the eastern portion of Glacier National Park, were sick, starving and desperate. Tribal oral tradition has it that the 1896 agreement was meant as a 99 year lease; the United States government took it for a sale, and while that view has prevailed, the Blackfeet's insistence of legal claim to the Badger has left all in the region in an uneasy stalemate.
The Blackfeet are not opposed to drilling in general -- in fact, in the last few years the tribe has signed three major agreements to explore the central and eastern portions of the rez. The most recent included a signing bonus of more than $15 million, a very big deal in a community with 70 percent unemployment. So white conservationists fear that if a pro-development faction were to take control of the tribal government, economics would trump spirituality. Environmentalists like Bruno would rather see the Badger declared a Wilderness Area.
"They feel like it's their land, they should be able to do with it what they want to do," he says. "And I feel, no, that's not true. Nobody should be able to trash their lands, no matter what color they are or what nationality they are or whatever. It's wrong. It's in nobody's best interests."
After 150 years of getting pushed around, it's not hard to understand why the tribe might feel proprietary, even defensive -- especially when it comes to energy policy. The Blackfeet reservation was Ground Zero for the Cobell v. Babbitt class action lawsuit, in which Browning banker Eloise Cobell sued the federal government for gross mismanagement of resource royalties due to some half a million American Indians. It wasn't until the 1982 Indian Minerals Development Act that tribes were even allowed to negotiate the terms of their own leases.
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray says, however, that the Blackfeet are capable of making fine distinctions. "They say, 'You guys are drilling on the reservation, what about that?' We say, 'Well, that's our land, we can do any damn thing we want with it.'
"But [the Badger] is land that we want to eventually manage and use for a variety of things, including traditional hunting, traditional gathering. But we don't intend to desecrate it, build roads. If we get to manage it we don't intend to drill."
The Badger's uncertain title may work to everyone's advantage -- excepting the oil and gas companies. The Blackfeet can use their claim as leverage to get the kind of management they want from the Forest Service -- in fact, in the spring of 2010 the Forest Service banned all motorized use of the area. The Forest Service can wash its hands of controversial decisions, essentially abdicating authority without any kind a showdown over ownership. And environmentalists grudgingly compromise on wilderness status for the Badger, knowing that they won't have any influence on management issues if they alienate the tribe.
"I think that's what has saved that place," says Joe Jessepe, a Blackfeet historian and member of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance. "Because of the unclear status. And I think maybe for everybody involved there is too much at stake."
Over the years, the stalling tactics worked. Each time environmentalists won a bureaucratic battle, the government would re-do some aspect of their plans and forge ahead. In 1993, Clinton's Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt temporarily called a halt to exploration in the region, pending completion of a cultural survey; in 1997, Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora became a folk hero when she issued a moratorium banning new leasing on Lewis and Clark forest lands for ten years. It proved the beginning of the end of her government career, and a marked departure from the ways public lands agencies had been making land use decisions in the West.
"What I did try to do was go around and talk to people and try to understand where they were coming from," she told me in a 2003 interview. "I'm not doing what the [Bureau of Land Management] does which is, 'You may give us your input but we don't want any emotion. Just give us the facts.' I find that patently offensive because one of the most important things about being human is our relationship to landscapes, our relationship to nature, our interdependency."
During Flora's moratorium, the Blackfeet and Forest Service cooperated to produce a cultural inventory of the Badger, resulting in two-thirds of the region classified as a Traditional Cultural District, making it eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Of the original 47 leases in the Badger, most now have been retired in some fashion -- through trades or private buy-outs. Of those remaining, only two companies are holding onto permits to drill: Chevron's leases now are held by Devon Energy, and Fina's lease was taken over by Louisiana businessman Sidney Longwell. These were thrown into limbo pending a proposal to include all of the Badger in the Traditional Cultural District, and remain there to this day.
"Somewhere there has to be a benchmark," Flora says. "Somewhere, some piece of landscape has to be so spectacular that a few days worth of gas for the nation really isn't worth the destruction that would be involved. What other place? I tell people now, I hope people look at that decision and say it was a no-brainer."
This work was produced with the support of the Alicia Patterson Foundation (Washington, D.C.), founded in 1965 to promote independent journalism.