About forty-five miles east of Glacier National Park sits Badger-Two Medicine. In the summer, this area is inundated with tourists from around the world, visiting to see Glacier’s towering peaks. In November, though, Badger-Two Medicine is bitterly cold. The wind rips through the area. It picks up the snow from a few days ago, and throws it around with such a force that it obscures the lines between the road and the surrounding fields.
Driving down this road, there are two mountain ranges on either side. These mountains seem to jut out from nowhere, with very little distinction between the flat fields which separate the car from the mountains, and the towering peaks.
The 130,000 acre area is named for the two rivers that run through it—the Badger river, and the Two Medicine river.
This area is more than just a nice spot for hiking, though. To the neighboring Blackfeet tribe, this area is a temple. The area is sacred, in the literal sense, as it’s part of the Blackfeet origin story. It’s also sacred in a more metaphysical sense, as it’s been part of the Blackfeet culture for thousands of years, according to Blackfeet members.
In the last few decades, this temple has been under attack.
Native activists have fought an intense battle to protect this area from a Louisiana-based energy company for the past 30 years, but when environmental groups joined the fight more recently, the battle transformed into a war. In battling a controversial oil and gas drilling lease, the unlikely coalition based much of their argument on the fact that the Badger-Two Medicine region is a sacred site to the Blackfeet tribe.
That argument appeared to win out on Monday, November 23rd, when the Department of the Interior voted to cancel the leases in the area just east of Glacier National Park.
Still, the history of the Badger-Two Medicine area is more complicated than a simple battle over resources, and because of that, not everyone is ready to relax.
This battle is already more than three decades old.
In 1982, the Bureau of Land Management granted leases to the Badger-Two Medicine area for oil and gas development. These leases went for a dollar an acre, but there was a hitch. In granting the lease, the BLM failed to consult with the neighboring Blackfeet, as required by law.
The move, in the eyes of many, made the leases illegal, but for many members of the tribe it was simply yet another example of the United States continually taking from Native Americans.
The Blackfeet have used the Badger-Two Medicine area for the past 20,000 years for resources and recreation, but in the last 150 years they have watched as their land has shrunk to less than a tenth of the size of what it used to be.
When the oil and gas lease took place many of them drew a line.
“We don’t have any place else to go. You know, that’s our reservation. That’s where we live. If you had to decide which was more important, I would say let’s preserve our land because of our children, our grandchildren,” said Leona Skunk Cap, a member of the Blackfeet.
John Murray, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Blackfeet, explained that the Blackfeet aren’t anti-development. The tribe has oil and gas developments on the eastern boundary of the reservation, but the Badger-Two Medicine area is different.
“I’m not coming from the perspective that I rode a horse to work,” said Murray, “but there are certain places that you do not desecrate.”
Ten years later, in 1993, the Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt suspended activity on the leases after Senator Max Baucus introduced the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act, which recommended reviewing the wilderness along with Blackfeet officials.
Still the lease debate dragged on.
By 2007, the Bush administration encouraged leaseholders to relinquish their leases for a tax incentive. The vast majority of these holders took the deal and released their land, but Louisiana-based Solenex, which had land in Badger-Two Medicine, refused.
The company went a step further in 2013, filing a lawsuit to force the U.S. to live up to its lease agreement to allow the firm to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine area.
John Murray has met with Sydney Longwell, the owner of Solenex. He explained that Longwell “tried to launch a campaign that he was this poor little town councilman...that he could not exercise the American dream...he could not employ manifest destiny,” but this campaign was ineffective in contrast to the Blackfeet’s campaign.
Solenex and its attorneys did not return our calls.
While the Department of the Interior’s decision to cancel Solenex’s lease was a relief, those involved with Badger-Two Medicine know that the fight is far from over. The federal court has postponed the case, after lawyers for the government and Solenex agreed to work on the case outside of the courts. According to tribal members, Badger-Two Medicine is about more than a battle between oil development and the environment. It’s about ignoring Native Americans’ culture in preference for development. It’s about conserving an area that’s pivotal for wildlife.
It’s about fighting back.
Much of the case made by opponents to drilling has centered on how sacred Badger-Two Medicine is to the Blackfeet.
To Jesse DesRosier, a Blackfeet member who has fought extensively against oil and gas development in Badger-Two Medicine, the area is literally a religious place.
“It served as a place of worship that’s almost equivalent as the Vatican. Our oral stories that originate there are relevant to Moses and the burning bush,” explained DesRosier.
Historically, the Blackfeet have used Badger-Two Medicine for resources like game and water, for spirituality, for natural medicine, for stress relief and for recreation, said DesRosier.
But there are other members of the tribe who do not see Badger-Two Medicine as the Blackfeet’s Vatican. They see the area as religious but also see it as one of only a few areas that the US government hasn’t already taken away from the Blackfeet. It borders the Blackfeet reservation, so it’s the closest place with some spiritual significance.
The importance of the region stems from its connection to Na’pi, the founder and creator of the Blackfeet. Na’pi supposedly walked through the Badger-Two Medicine area, adding to its sacred nature.
Whether Na’pi was the real creator of the tribe, though, is up for debate.
“They always told us that if you do this or if you do that, you’ll be like Na’pi. Na’pi was a trickster in our tribe and he did a lot crazy foolish things. He sure wasn’t our creator,” said Leona Skunk Cap, a member of the Blackfeet.
To Leona Skunk Cap, the importance of Badger-Two Medicine isn’t its religious power. She just wants to protect the land for younger generations. According to her, what’s specifically sacred is the younger generations’ ability to use the area.
Skunk Cap’s opinion about the sacred nature of Badger-Two Medicine differs from the opinions of many others. John Murray was involved in multiple ethnography studies that looked at the cultural significance of the Badger-Two Medicine. The US Forest Service worked with the Blackfeet to conduct these ethnographic studies, which found that the area is indeed integral to the Blackfeet community and culture. These studies designated the area as a Traditional Cultural District under the National Register of Historic Places, which granted it additional protection.
The Larger Argument
To some, the battle against the lease is to protect the Blackfeet religion. To others, it’s about saving a space that is cherished for its refuge and tranquility.
The Blackfeet have been fighting these leases for the last few decades, but the movement to protect Badger-Two Medicine gained momentum when environmental groups joined the fight.
These groups brought a different perspective, but they also brought money and resources that the Blackfeet needed to fight the oil and gas industry.
The Blackfeet nation worked with a company in Seattle to develop a website with information about the campaign to protect Badger-Two Medicine. As of December, this website has reached 22 million people across the world, according to Murray.
Murray explained that although the environmentalists can occasionally get pushy with their own agenda, the Blackfeet have been quick to curb this, and to make sure that they stay united against oil and gas.
“If they want to work that’s fine...they’re very very helpful, very committed and know what they’re doing,” said Murray about the environmentalists.
The environmentalists have a variety of reasons for protecting the Badger-Two Medicine, ranging from personal, to biological to ethical.
For DesRosier, a veteran, the area in danger is important to his and other veterans’ mental health. He said areas like Badger-Two Medicine can be a stress reliever and with suicide rates as high as they are among veterans, it’s important that we protect the outdoors.
“The whole reason why we seek the outdoors is to escape roads, to escape the wildness of urban living, you know? The word ‘wilderness’ is ironic because it has the word ‘wild’ in it, but to many veterans, it’s the urban living that’s wild to us,” said DesRoiser.
In addition to Badger-Two Medicine being important for recreation, it’s also important for local wildlife, according to biologists who live nearby. Grizzly bears, elk, wolverines and all sorts of other wildlife travel through Badger-Two Medicine. Development disturbs these animals, which disturbs the ecosystem as a whole.
Grizzly bears in particular are important to an ecosystem, and Badger-Two Medicine has a particularly high concentration of them. For grizzlies to thrive, they need to live in “country that’s wild enough for them to exist and where they have food. A habitat they can use and also where they’re the least likely to run into impacts from humans that could increase mortality,” explains Greg Strutz, a member of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance.
The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance is a conglomerate of people who see the Badger-Two Medicine area as sacred for a variety of reasons. A member like Strutz, an East Glacier local with a passion for conservation, sees it as sacred for wildlife. The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance aims to help connect supporters of the Badger-Two Medicine Area, whether they see the area as sacred because of its religious connections, because of its important for wildlife, or simply because it’s a beautiful place to hike.
Advocates worry that oil and gas development cannot happen in a place like Badger-Two Medicine, which acts as a corridor for wildlife between the Glacier and Bob Marshall ecosystems. Development would make it more difficult for this wildlife to travel between these ecosystems, which would negatively affect both ecosystems, Strutz explained.
Because of all of these reasons, regional and national environmental groups such as the Montana Wilderness Association, and National Parks Conservation Association, have worked alongside with the Blackfeet in a movement that has reached the global scale.
It's actually not over yet.
Although the Department of the Interior has started working on cancelling the leases in Badger-Two Medicine, the federal court’s decision to delay the case until January means the Blackfeet and supporters of Badger-Two Medicine still have a battle to fight.
DesRosier said the decision to cancel the lease was “monumental” but he says he’s not going to relax until the area gets firm protection, without leaving out the Blackfeet opinion.
The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance hopes that U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who supports protecting Badger-Two Medicine, will take a bill to Congress for permanent protection of the area.
Strutz explains there shouldn’t be any “oil and gas, logging and mining any of that stuff and keeps [the area] roadless [sic] and motorized so there are no impacts both to the Blackfeet for the exercise of their religious rights there or to wildlife that needs the quiet habitat there to survive and get by.”
But even as people like Strutz and DesRosier work for permanent protections for the area, lawyers for the energy company have not given up their fight for the right to drill.
Solenex has successfully delayed the decision until early January, at which point attorneys for Solenex and the government will present their agreement to the federal court. The Blackfeet are noticeably absent from these discussions.
Murray said that the government promised they would contact the Blackfeet if anything that would affect the tribe comes up in the deliberations.
“I don’t think they’re going to contact us. They didn’t contact us when they first negotiated the leases 30 years ago, why would we expect that now?” said Murray.
The Badger-Two Medicine website, which aims to protect the area, is ready to fight back: “We know corporate interests are unlikely to back down from the fight and neither are we. We won’t end our battle until Badger-Two Medicine is permanently protected from oil and gas development.”