CHOTEAU - “The places that matter are not always made of brick and mortar.”
Amy Sakariassen’s comment was the essence of the testimony heard by a federal advisory council that is deciding whether drilling for oil and gas would degrade historic sites in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Rocky Mountain Front.
More than a 100 people traveled to Choteau from across Montana to listen and testify at a rare hearing initiated by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. During the three-hour hearing – kicked off by Blackfeet prayer and song - the council got an earful from agency and tribal leaders and 42 citizens, all of whom expressed strong support for cancelling federal permits to do exploratory drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine region. A number of commenters had backgrounds in law, history and biology while others were tribal members and other locals passionate about the wild land in their backyard.
“I opposed the permits from the outset. This is a significant spiritual and cultural area for my people,” said Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member Joe McKay. “There is not just one lease but 18 leases remaining. But if this application is not cancelled, then we’ll see the request to develop the other leases, and that will have a greater impact on the cultural and spiritual value to our people.”
The advisory council is a small independent agency that oversees preservation of historic places on federal lands under a section of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It steps in once an issue is at an impasse.
That’s certainly the case with the drilling permit on the Badger-Two Medicine, which lies just west of the Blackfeet Reservation. After more than 30 years, 11 appeals, seven ethnographic studies and one archeological study, the Lewis and Clark National Forest concluded in 2012 that the lease area overlays areas of tribal historical significance. Solenex sued, and now Interior Secretary Sally Jewell must make a decision based on the council’s recommendation.
Council chairman Wayne Donaldson said about 120,000 cases a year deal with historic places, but most of the time, the parties reach an agreement so the council doesn't weigh in. This is only the third hearing he’s held since 2010.
“So this is a big thing,” Donaldson said. “We are here to listen to input on this undertaking to help define our comments. But our comments are only advisory – we do not stop projects.”
The council’s recommendation must be submitted to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack by Sept. 21.
Although no part of the Badger-Two Medicine is on the Register of Historic Places, the council can consider areas that are eligible for listing as historic.
Stan Wilmoth, archeologist with the Montana Historic Preservation Office, left no question about the historic qualifications of the Badger-Two Medicine. Wilmoth has worked in the area since the 1980s and said initial reviews of the permit, first issued in 1983, didn’t have to consider traditional practices. Guidelines change after 1993, and his office and the Forest Service have reconsidered their early assessments, as reflected in the December 2014 adverse-effect findings.
“We defer to tribal representatives as the appropriate authority to determine what is and what is not important to the tribe. In 1973, the tribe considered the area to be in pristine state for use by tribal spiritual leaders,” Wilmoth said. “We agree with the tribe that further talks appear unlikely to reach any resolution.”
Tribal chairman Harry Barnes said the Blackfeet had offered to let Solonex drill wells on the reservation instead of the Badger-Two Medicine. But the tribe terminated talks on July 7.
“In all sincerity and act of consideration, we came with an open hand. That hand and that offer is withdrawn,” Barnes said.
In his arguments for why his client, Solenex LLC and manager Sidney Longwell, should be allowed to drill, attorney Steve Lechner said the area is already marred by a nearby rail line, highway and power lines and that the drilling operation would affect only 23 acres. Lechner said that while Solenex is open to mitigation, it would not move the well because that would start the evaluation process over again.
“The absence of any protests or appeals (in 1982) speaks volumes,” Lechner said. “The Forest Service has made a mockery of the Historic Preservation Act. Congress did not intend for agencies to spend 20 years trying to comply with procedural requirements. The only reasonable conclusion we can reach is that the Forest Service has been using (the act) to prevent Solenex from exercising its valuable lease rights.”
Some commenters testified that the council shouldn’t spend time on the issue because Interior Secretary James Watt illegally pushed the original lease through, along with several others during the Reagan era of the '80s.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said nearby leases in the Deep Creek and North Fork Flathead areas were challenged in the ‘80s and cancelled. He argued that the Solonex lease should also be found invalid. The Forest Service is reviewing the lease under current law and will decide whether to cancel it by Oct. 31.
Browning physician Kendall Flint downplayed Lechner’s claim that the area is already developed. Flint regularly leads hikes into the lease area near Hall Creek.
“Mr. Longwell’s team has repeatedly tried to portray Hall Creek as an industrial zone,” Flint said. “Those descriptions are laughably false and can only express either a strategic misrepresentation or absolute unfamiliarity with this landscape.”
Great Falls attorney Stuart Lewin also challenged Lechner’s arguments while defending the tribe’s First Amendment rights to worship as they see fit.
“What kind of argument is this that since it’s partially destroyed, we can destroy it more?” Lewin said.
Several commenters said because the Badger-Two Medicine joins the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Glacier National Park, it is critical habitat for many wild species that are sacred to the Blackfeet people, including wolverine, elk, various medicinal plants and potentially bison.
Blackfeet members, young and old, stepped to the microphone to take a stand for their way of life. But the microphone had to be carried to elder Ben Boss Calf Ribs, who was in a wheel chair after having suffered a stroke. That didn’t affect his passion or his voice as he spoke for his people and the Badger-Two Medicine.
“If they put a well in there, the spiritual way of life is gone. It kills it. The spiritual people have nowhere to go. Native Americans cannot talk to the spirits and cannot have the supernatural power that that place gives the Indian,” Boss Calf Ribs said.