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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Montana Oil & Gas

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Schmidt reports from Montana where sacred Blackfoot Indian tribal land was leased in the 1980's to gas and oil companies for potential development. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has declared a moratorium on drilling among the mountain wilderness, and both sides — Native Americans and the interested corporation — wait to see what will happen next.


CURWOOD: Some of the largest tracts of unprotected wilderness in the Continental US lie in northwest Montana, along the rugged windswept east slope of the Rocky Mountains. This area, known as the Rocky Mountain Front, is at the center of an intensifying dispute over drilling for oil and gas. Chevron, Fina, and other petroleum interests say the front probably contains vast reserves of fossil fuel, and they're eager to use drilling leases that they bought from the Federal Government back in the 1980s, during the Reagan Administration. But the Clinton Administration and environmental activists say the front is a crucial piece of a great ecosystem and should receive permanent wilderness designation. Meanwhile, Native Americans are fighting to protect parts of the front they consider sacred. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports.

SCHMIDT: The day is threatening rain. Dark storm clouds hover over the Rocky Mountain Front and the peaks beyond. The mountains rise unexpectedly out of the high prairie, their weathered slopes a sharp contrast to the yellow fields which stretch eastward, seemingly without end. The Blackfeet Indians call this section of the northern Rockies the backbone of the world.

(A truck over gravel)

SCHMIDT: The Blackfeet Reservation borders what's known as the Badger-Two Medicine, a 116,000-acre section of the National Forest on the Rocky Mountain Front. It's at the center of the controversy over oil and gas development here. On this day, 2 tribal biologists head their pickup across the rutted prairie toward Badger Creek. They're checking on several grizzly bear traps set a few days ago.

BIOLOGIST 1: Do you want to grab your pistol or take the shotgun?

BIOLOGIST 2: Oh, grab the pistol, I guess.

SCHMIDT: The large silver canisters have been baited with cow heads in hopes of attracting a grizzly sow and 2 cubs which have turned up near Reservation homes, and which they hope to relocate back to the mountains. But after circling the traps cautiously, the biologists discover only a starving dog caught in one of them.

(Sound of metal scraping and falling)

BIOLOGIST 1: Hey! Hello, puppy. Oh, you poor guy.

(The dog pants)

SCHMIDT: Even though the bears remain elusive, biologist Dan Carney says there's no question about the area's wildness.

CARNEY: There are tracks of wolves that we see every winter. Grizzly bears are all through the area, not only in the mountains but we've got them, oh, 10 miles further out the creek.

SCHMIDT: The Badger-Two Medicine is part of a Federally designated grizzly bear recovery zone. It's also home to other wildlife, including elk, mountain goats, moose, and wolverines. And it serves as an important link between Glacier National Park to the north, and 1.5 million acres of protected wildness to the south.

(Knocking on a door. A man opens, says, "Hi, come on in.")

SCHMIDT: Lou Bruno lives in a tidy, double-wide mobile home in East Glacier, a small community where in the winter cattle and horses roam the streets freely. Mr. Bruno is president of the environmental group The Glacier Two Medicine Alliance. He says the Badger-Two Medicine is a crucial linchpin in a unique ecosystem.

BRUNO: I live on the edge of an area that essentially now, with the return of the wolf, has every animal that it naturally evolved with. I mean, we have a whole nation of fragmented ecosystems that are essentially only able to survive with manipulation by man. You know, they talk about deer getting out of hand because the predators are gone. That wouldn't happen here. You know, this ecosystem, I think, hopefully, that the ecosystem can go on its own.

SCHMIDT: Lou Bruno and other environmentalists fear the impact of oil and gas drilling, and accompanying activities like road building. He cites what happened along the Rocky Mounntain Front not far north in Alberta, Canada, where there's been widespread oil and gas drilling.

BRUNO: They went up every single drainage of the front, and now that the bottom fell out of the industry and they're reaching the end of their, the field production, the communities are left high and dry. And the country is destroyed. Elk populations are way, are a fraction of what they are in the states. Sheep populations are a fraction of what they are in the states.

SCHMIDT: But for oil companies, the message from Alberta is something else. It's a sign there may be more natural gas along the front just waiting to be tapped. The fight over the Badger-Two Medicine began during the Reagan Administration, when vast areas of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front were leased to petroleum companies. Fina and Chevron are the primary lease holders on the Badger. Mark Palmer is a Fina spokesman.

PALMER: It is frontier drilling, and by that it's not exactly proven area. But back when we purchased the lease we were interested in the natural gas formations that were somewhat evident in that area of the Rocky Mountain Front.

SCHMIDT: Both Fina and Chevron want to start exploratory drilling, but they've been held up by environmentalists in court, and more recently by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Secretary Babbitt, whose agency controls underground mineral rights, has placed a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas activity in the Badger Two Medicine. The ban is intended to give Congress time to push through a Wilderness Bill, which could provide permanent protection for the area. Fina's Mark Palmer says the petroleum industry has shown that it can safely balance exploration with environmental protection, but that's a separate issue from the lease right. Mr. Palmer says Fina expects the government to fulfill its lease obligations.

PALMER: We do have an investment, and we are looking out for the interests of our shareholders and our company. So we want to protect that investment. We spent a good deal of money for the lease, and we have been unable to make any type of a decision because we've been put in limbo, kind of a suspended animation on this project, because of the moratorium.

SCHMIDT: But the battle over the future of the Badger-Two Medicine is not just between industry and environmental groups. Spiritualists with the Blackfeet Nation consider the area sacred.

(Wind whistles)

SCHMIDT: Out on the Blackfeet Reservation the wind blows hard and often. On this cold, clear night, it's whipping across the prairie at nearly 100 miles an hour. But sitting in his living room, warmed by a wood stove, Blackfeet Elder Buster Yellow Kidney shrugs off the wind as a way of life here. He, along with other Blackfeet who continue to hold traditional spiritual views, have formed a tribal association to protect the nearby mountains.

YELLOW KIDNEY: Sometimes I go back up on the mountains and I'll do some fasting and so forth, maybe 4-day fasts. And I come off of there, and I do a lot of sweats back in that area. And even in the winter I used to go back in and stay for weeks at a time, because I find it so peaceful back there. And it's the only place I could say that I found peace within myself.

SCHMIDT: Mr. Yellow Kidney says he was once asked by a Forest Service official to pinpoint the sacred sites within the Badger Two Medicine, with the understanding that those specific areas might be put off-limits to oil and gas drilling.

YELLOW KIDNEY: And this is what I told him. I said you know, this is what you are trying to do to us here in the Blackfeet. It's like if you were sitting in church on some Sunday morning and I came to the church door and I asked you, point out the sacred areas in your church, the holiest part of your church. You know, say this one and that one, that one. Okay, then I go back out and I climb on my bulldozer and knock everything down except those things you point out. I said that's what you want to do to our church.

SCHMIDT: Forest Service officials are currently trying to determine the cultural significance of the Badger-Two Medicine and whether it should be protected. Local Forest Service supervisor Gloria Flora says the study of the cultural sites shows how much the Agency has learned since it granted the oil and gas leases a decade and a half ago.

FLORA: We've become more aware of the grizzly bear and how to understand the habitat needs. Certainly we've advanced in our knowledge and understanding and respect for the Blackfeet Nation. The level of concern that the public has expressed over development. These have all changed dramatically. So, would the same decision be made? I doubt it.

SCHMIDT: But Ms. Flora says it's too late to say no to the oil companies now.

FLORA: It's already too far down the road to just say oh, we quit. It really would take Congressional legislative action to determine that we're somehow going to extract ourselves from these lease obligations.

SCHMIDT: But Congress may not agree to spend what could amount to tens of millions of dollars to buy back the oil and gas leases. Meanwhile, Secretary Babbitt is under increasing pressure from the Forest Service not to renew the moratorium on the Badger. Despite the Agency's wish to resolve the conflict, there's no end in sight. If the moratorium is lifted, a lengthy court battle over the Badger is expected to resume.

(Water sluices)

SCHMIDT: Back on Badger Creek, tribal biologist Dan Carney looks out across the Front, which rises like a great wall along the land.

CARNEY: You can see Badger Canyon, where it comes out of the mountain. Up in that way a few miles there's Two Medicine River.

SCHMIDT: For as far as one can see, there are no roads, no houses, nothing but trees and dark valleys and craggy peaks. For some the beauty of this place is in its wildness; for others it's in the development opportunities. The question now is which vision will prevail. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.



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