BROWNING – On a recent flight over Divide Mountain, a snow-marbled peak that straddles the border between the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park, Lori New Breast crossed her fingers.

New Breast is an enrolled tribal member and the co-founder of Blackfeet Women Against Fracking, a coalition of women opposed to the rampant oil and gas exploration occurring on reservation lands. She is worried that the rolling foothills intersecting the Rocky Mountain Front could soon be bristling with oil wells, and that a trove of cultural and natural resources will be dramatically and permanently altered in the process.

Dozens of exploratory well pads already checker the landscape and proposals for others continue to stack up in the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including one at the base of Divide Mountain.

“The oil companies have pretty much had carte blanche access to our land, but there hasn’t been any free flow of information to those of us with a strong connection to the land,” she said. “People are signing away their leases and they don’t understand the consequences.”

Virtually all of the Blackfeet Reservation’s 1.5 million acres are leased for oil and gas exploration, and there has been renewed interest in development on a tract of land directly adjacent to Glacier National Park’s eastern border.

This week, New Breast had the opportunity to view the mountainous landscape from an altitude of 1,000 feet, courtesy of pilot Bruce Gordon, who runs a nonprofit outfit called EcoFlight in an effort to raise awareness about threatened lands.

“I’m so grateful to have this perspective of our indigenous homelands,” she said.

Blackfeet Women Against Fracking is one of several small, grassroots groups that have emerged recently as awareness of the energy development and potential environmental consequences builds. Opponents of the development worry that if the exploration continues unchecked, the hydraulically fractured oil wells and flare stacks could contaminate a pristine ecosystem and disturb centuries-old cultural sites.

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Earlier this week, New Breast drove over Logan Pass with her aging mother. Again, her fingers were crossed.

“When we came down the pass I was tearing up because I don’t want that to be my mother’s last chance to see our homeland in that condition,” she said. “To see the beauty of the waterfalls and mountain-fed waters, I want to do everything I can to see that it stays that way.”

To draw attention to the oil and gas dilemma, New Breast and members of Blackfeet Women Against Fracking have organized a 100-mile “water walk” from Chief Mountain to Heart Butte Summit, a trek they’ll commence on Aug. 6.

New Breast’s gravest concern is that the exploratory wells involve hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial extraction process in which a mixture of chemicals and millions of gallons of water are forced into underground rock formations at high pressure. By breaking the rock into cracks and fissures, the process creates pathways to draw out the oil and gas deposits contained within.

As much as 70 percent of the chemicals used in fracking cannot be recovered and remain underground, where they can contaminate local water sources.

“We hope to bring awareness that our water is at stake due to the fracking, and that our waterways could be poisoned,” said Pauline Matt, who helped start Blackfeet Women Against Fracking out of her home near Browning.

Allowing the fracking to take place is a 2006 resolution by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council to lease land along the western edge of the reservation for oil and gas exploration.

The resolution allows the Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. to drill exploratory wells on a 400,000-acre tract of reservation land which abuts Glacier Park’s eastern boundary.

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But along with the shifting geographic landscape comes a changing political landscape, and this week’s tribal council elections saw four incumbents defeated and four newcomers elected to the tribe’s most powerful governing body.

Among those who lost their council seats is Blackfeet Tribal Business Council chairman Terry J. “T.J.” Show, who has been a strong supporter of oil and gas exploration on the reservation. Earlier this year, he opposed a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management to adopt new rules that would regulate fracking, including requiring oil and gas companies to conduct baseline water quality tests.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs in April, Show said the rules would “create additional burdens to an already burdensome process that will likely delay and possibly prevent beneficial development of Blackfeet oil resources.”

Show also noted that the Blackfeet Tribe suffers from an unemployment rate that hovers between 70 percent and 80 percent, and producing wells would be a financial windfall to the tribe.

He said the tribe has “determined that development of the large pools of oil and natural gas … is the most viable option to improve the reservation economy, to provide jobs to tribal members, to provide necessary services on the reservation, and to bring some measure of improvement to the standard of living of Blackfeet tribal members.”

Show did not return phone calls seeking comment on the election.

The newly elected council chair, Cheryl Lynn “Katooisaki” Little Dog, said she does not view the shifting leadership as a referendum on energy development as much as a statement from tribal members that they want change and improved communication between the council and the tribe.

“I think what the people really wanted to see was a change in our governing body because there is a lot of corruption and conflict going on,” Little Dog said. “That’s why I ran, and that’s why my people voted me in, to give them a voice. I do have a backbone and I will stand up for my people.”

Little Dog said she will work to ensure that cultural sites and natural resources are afforded the protections that tribal members deserve.

“The environmental and cultural aspects need to be looked into because we have sites that these companies aren’t aware of and don’t have any respect for,” she said.

Part of the problem, New Breast said, is the approach Anschutz is using to conduct environmental assessments, which occur at individual well sites without taking into account the cumulative impact.

“There is no comprehensive assessment,” she said. “The well-by-well approach doesn’t take into account the overall impact to these resources.”

She hopes the new leadership brings changes to the tribe’s approach to energy development.

“The council has kind of rolled over the reservation and tribal members haven’t had any knowledge of what is happening,” she said. “That needs to change.”

Flathead Valley Bureau reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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