A Ray of Bright Light in a Time of Darkness

It seems like a very long time since there was much good news to celebrate. The pandemic brought America to a screeching halt, which is where it’s stayed and, from the newly rising cases, will likely stay for some time to come due to Trump’s incredibly bungled response. Protests are once again sweeping the nation, still struggling to deal with police brutality and racial injustice. But then, like a brilliant sun rising into Montana’s cerulean sky, comes the decision to halt the oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area, the sacred center of the Blackfeet tribe, bringing hope in a very dark time.

As the Missoulian’s Rob Chaney reported last week, “the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overruled a judge’s 2018 decision that had allowed a Louisiana company to keep its lease within the Badger Two-Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National Forest.”

The Badger-Two Medicine area is bounded by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the Blackfeet Nation and Glacier National Park. But since it sits outside the reservation boundary, it was available for oil and gas leases, 6,247 acres of which were issued in 1982 for a whopping $1 an acre. The Department of Interior, however, failed to perform the environmental and cultural analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act and the leases were cancelled by Interior in 2016 after numerous court challenges and losses.

The Court’s Order, written by Judge Millett, beautifully describes the enormous historic, cultural, and religious significance of the area to the Blackfeet. “The Tribe’s oral history describes how its people began to suffer and die shortly after the world’s creation. Seeing that suffering, the Creator returned to the Blackfeet and took them into the countryside and mountains of what would become the traditional Blackfeet territory, including the Two Medicine Area. There, the Creator introduced the Blackfeet to healing trees, bushes, and plants, and taught them how to seek the Creator and other spirits. Seeking those spirits, which is ‘a central and inseparable part of [the Tribe’s] religion and lifeway,’ requires the Blackfeet to be in the proper geographical location and to undertake special preparations for religious ceremonies in the area.”

On the environment, the Order notes: “The Two Medicine Area functions as a habitat for a number of species, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, grizzly bears, elk, wolves, lynx, and wolverines, and it serves as a ‘critical wildlife movement corridor.’ In recognition of its critical environmental status and to preserve the region, the United States Forest Service in 2009 banned motorized vehicles from all trails and prohibited snowmobiling.”

Given that there is now a billion barrel surplus of oil — and no indication that will vanish due to ubiquitous fracking — it makes no sense whatsoever to pursue yet more drilling, roadbuilding and development in this area than it would to drill in the Sistine Chapel, Mecca, or any holiest of holies on the planet. Unfortunately, it is all too evident that Trump’s administration has exactly zero regard for the environment, national monuments, tribal religious rights, or future generations.

Yet, even as the widespread damage from Trump’s presidency continues to mount daily we have something to celebrate. The Court has ruled that the destruction shall not happen to the Badger-Two Medicine. And now, in Trump’s darkness of arrogance and ignorance, a bright light shines forth, bringing hope for a better, saner, and more respectful future not just for the Blackfeet, but for all of us.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.