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Drilling Sacred Land: the Fight to Save the Badger-Two Medicine

We respectfully urge Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Interior Department to protect Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine landscape, and appeal the recent reinstatement of two cancelled oil leases there.

On Sept. 24, efforts to protect “the Badger” suffered a setback when D.C. District Judge Richard Leon restored those leases.

The leasing dates from the 1980s, when countless leases were created, blanketing western national forest lands with would-be oilfields. Much of that leasing, including in Badger-Two Medicine country, was improperly rushed, with essentially reusable “cookie-cutter” environmental assessments (EAs), instead of required site-specific environmental impact statements (EISs) and without mandated Blackfeet Tribal consultation. The government maintained then that leasing was simply clerical, and didn’t itself impact the environment.

Montanans promptly sued, focusing on an area farther south on the Rocky Mountain Front (Bob Marshall Alliance v. James Watt), and another in the Flathead National Forest (Conner v. Burford). Plaintiffs argued that leasing requires site-specific EISs, because leasing leads to drilling, with site-specific environmental impacts. Judges agreed, voiding both leases and directing the government to start over with site-specific EIS processes.

That “start over” never happened. And the threat from oil development on public wildlands subsided. In the Badger-Two Medicine’s Hall Creek drainage, drilling was cancelled at the 11th hour. That Hall Creek lease was suspended (though not voided), and conservationists were lulled into a sense of security. Then, in 2013, that threat reared its head as an oil-industry lawsuit. Louisiana oilman Sydney Longwell maintained that his old Hall Creek lease constituted a property right, and he wanted to develop that property. He challenged the government’s suspension of lease development. Judge Leon agreed and directed the government to provide a quick timeline to drill.

Ironically, Longwell proved the old conservationists right. As argued 30 years ago, selling an oil lease did imply the consequence of drilling, with all the environmental, wildlife and cultural impacts that oil exploration entails. This time the government agreed. After considerable deliberation, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewel cancelled all remaining Badger-Two Medicine leases, affirming that they were illegal.

In 2017 Longwell, joined by Texas oilman W.A. Moncrief Jr., sued again, claiming the government overstepped in cancelling their leases. And last month Judge Leon ruled for Longwell and Moncrief without addressing the legality of their leases. He opined that lease cancellation was “capricious and reckless” because of the time involved and was unfair to the lease-holders.

It’s worth reviewing those years of lease suspension. While Longwell waited to drill, the conservation community and the Blackfeet Nation continued their efforts to protect “the Badger.” Over 30 years they worked to translate a Montana groundswell of support into lasting protection for this treasured wildland. And much happened: most leaseholders sold, traded or voluntarily surrendered their old leases; Congress declared “the Badger” and the Front off limits for future leasing; the U.S. Forest Service banned damaging motorized travel there; the Badger-Two Medicine was recognized under the National Historic Preservation Act as a Traditional Cultural District sacred to the Blackfeet; and its importance in the greater Crown of the Continent Ecosystem was confirmed.

On its own, “the Badger” is a beautiful wildland with crucial wildlife habitat, and a living cultural landscape. Recognizing its keystone connections with the adjoining Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, it’s clear that the Badger-Two Medicine must never be drilled.

While Judge Leon’s opinion represents a setback, this issue is not settled. We now urge Secretary Zinke and the Department of Interior to strongly appeal Judge Leon’s decision, to cancel these illegal leases and to protect “the Badger” for perpetuity.

Kendall Flint and Lou Bruno are president and president-elect of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance.

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