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Blackfeet may win fight to keep oil drillers off sacred eastern face of Rockies

SHARE Blackfeet may win fight to keep oil drillers off sacred eastern face of Rockies

The Blackfeet walked lightly on this land when they ruled it, because it was sacred. All of it.

But the Blackfeet rule ended when the white men arrived with guns and wagons and fences and roads and buildings and machines and mines and scarred the land forever.Now the Blackfeet are struggling with the white men again, this time to protect some last remnants of their sacred sites, the dwindling places where they can go for spiritual comfort and guidance.

This time they may win.

The religious concerns of the Blackfeet and the near-religious fervor of environmental groups have converged to create a protective maze of frustration and delay around the tribe's last great open-air cathedral. The Forest Service locked out the drillers in August with a new ban on oil and gas drilling for 10 to 15 years, and a pending decision could add more twists and turns to the maze.

Two major oil companies that hold leases to drill on thousands of acres of it are already so frustrated they are trying to pull out.

The petroleum industry has long coveted the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains, the 100-mile stretch of the Lewis and Clark National Forest called the Rocky Mountain Front.

It lies over the geological formation called the thrust belt, which has yielded rich oil and gas deposits in Canada and Wyoming.

Sacred sites of the Blackfeet and other tribes, mostly small, isolated and faint, are sprinkled throughout the Front and far beyond, to the Sweet Grass Hills, the Little Rockies, the Snowy Mountains, the Crazies. But all eyes, white and Blackfeet, are focused on the place called the Badger-Two Medicine area.

To the Forest Service it's administrative unit RM-1, the northernmost segment of the Front.

To the petroleum industry it's potentially rich deposits of oil and gas just waiting to be developed.

To the Blackfeet it's holy. All of it.

"That's about the last place we have," said George Kipp, a leader in the effort to sustain the traditional Blackfeet ways. "It would be very difficult for us to relocate anywhere else.

"Why should we? We've been here thousands of years."

The Badger-Two Medicine is 133,000 acres, 207 very unsquare miles of achingly beautiful mountains and forest and streams wedged between Glacier National Park on the north, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex on the west and south, and the Blackfeet Reservation on the east. Rich in wildlife, including grizzly bears, it is a major retreat for traditional Blackfeet in search of spiritual help.

Chevron USA, Fina Oil and Chemical Co. and others have held drilling leases on 114,000 acres of the area since the 1980s, but no well has been drilled. Environmental groups and the Blackfeet have blocked drilling with a host of maneuvers, including a lawsuit and a series of administrative appeals, moratoriums and suspensions.

Now a Forest Service officer in Washington, D.C., is deciding whether much of the Badger, about the southern two-thirds, is eligible for designation as a "traditional cultural property." If so, it would qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

That determination would not be an outright ban on development but would wrap the Badger-Two Medicine in a layer of cultural protections on top of the drilling ban and long-standing environmental restrictions. Companies that wanted to drill in the area would face more requirements to safeguard tribal sacred sites.

Chevron and Fina are offering to drop the leases if the federal government repays the millions of dollars they have sunk into the effort. Others probably would follow.

To the Blackfeet, it does not look like victory. Curly Bear Wagner, culture officer for the tribe, says the petroleum industry won't quit.

"We know they are going to keep pushing and pushing for drilling oil in there," Wagner said. "It's very frightening because of what the land means to our people. Not just our people - all people."

Chevron spokesman Walt Maguire was equally unhappy.

"One of the great shames of this whole episode is that there has been no real attempt to find out if the resources do exist," Maguire said.

"We're not talking about a thousand wells - we're talking about one. . . . It seems, the way things are going, those attempts won't be made. If this land is locked up it'll be locked up for a long time."

Kipp, however, has little faith in the actions of governments - federal, state or even tribal. The tribal council's position seems to change with every election, he said.

"We as Montanans, we have to live with what happens here in this country, but even the governing officials in this state are dictated to by the development mongers who donate heavily to their campaign funds. . . .

"Everything in the Western world is very limited until the next election." Kipp said. "Long-range planning - real long-range planning - is four years."

Wagner is pessimistic, too.

"The development of our land is in the hands of people who don't know what the land is," Wagner said. "Development of the West is out of the hands of the people. . . . The companies in oil and gas and coal are working their will on the American people."

And squarely in the middle stands the Forest Service.

"The Forest Service is sitting in the middle and trying to make wise decisions among many competing interests," said Mike Beckes, regional archaeologist in Missoula. "We're not the Evil Empire trying to stomp anybody.

"When the Blackfeet assert traditional cultural values, on the other side is someone with a valid (oil and gas) lease who met all the requirements set down by Congress."

In August the Forest Service surprised everyone by adopting an oil and gas management plan that bans drilling not just in the Badger-Two Medicine but anywhere on the Front for the next 10 to 15 years. Oil companies may appeal but had sounded resigned even to the original proposal, which would have allowed such limited drilling that the industry called it a ban.

The plan excludes any new leases in the Badger-Two Medicine but leaves existing leases in effect until they expire - a time bomb, in the view of the Blackfeet.

Federal law requires the Forest Service to find ways to accommodate competing interests, ways to mitigate the impacts to acceptable levels. In the Badger-Two Medicine that's not possible, the Blackfeet say.