Rocky Mountain Front

A hiker looks over the Rocky Mountain Front at an area that was leased for gas and oil exploration. Moncrief Oil and Gas Master permanently retired its lease this week as part of an arrangement with The Wilderness Society.

Another federal gas and oil lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area, one covering 7,640 acres, is permanently retired.

The move leaves only one gas and oil exploratory lease in place out of about 45 issued on the Rocky Mountain Front, adjacent to Glacier National Park, since the early 1980s.

Moncrief Oil and Gas Master LLC reached an out-of-court settlement earlier this week with The Wilderness Society, which will end the Texas-based company’s right to explore for gas and oil in the area held sacred by the Blackfeet Nation. Moncrief held the rights to develop the property for 37 years, but with an undisclosed amount of financial aid from the nonprofit Wyss Foundation, agreed to retire the rights.

“Moncrief Oil recognizes the value of wilderness areas and always endeavors to protect the wilderness and preserve the wildlife that lives in and roams these areas,” the company said in a prepared statement. “Even though Moncrief Oil believes that this valuable oil and gas lease could have been developed while protecting and even benefiting the wilderness, the sensitivity to this special area outweighs development, and therefore has agreed to relinquishment of the lease to the federal government after the prior proper ruling by the court.”

The Wilderness Society praised Moncrief for its willingness to negotiate and to the Wyss Foundation for its financial and other support. The leased property is along the Rocky Mountain Front, south of U.S. Highway 2 near Glacier National Park.

“The Wilderness Society thanks Mr. W.A. Moncrief, Jr., for his willingness to negotiate, and we are pleased to have been able to secure the retirement of this lease. We are also deeply grateful to Hansjörg Wyss and the Wyss Foundation for helping make this critical step possible,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with our partners in the Blackfeet Nation and other stakeholders to obtain permanent protections for this important area of our nation's public lands.”

That leaves only one lease remaining from about 45 that were issued for the area in the 1980s by then-Secretary of Interior James Watts, according to John Murray, the Blackfeet tribal historic preservation officer. Murray noted that the Badger Two-Medicine is “vitally important” to the Blackfeet, which opposed the leases from the start.

Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Tim Davis called the lease retirement "a victory for the Blackfeet and for all of America."

"We are not against oil and gas development," Davis said in a statement. "In fact, we have offered these companies lease sites elsewhere on the reservation. We are simply against the industrialization of our most sacred places."

In 2006, Congress used incentives, including tax breaks, for 29 leaseholders who gave up their drilling rights. Devon Energy voluntarily gave up its 15 leasing rights for 32,000 acres in 2016, which it had acquired through a merger. The cancellation entitled Devon to about $200,000 in refunds for rents and bonus bids that were paid. The area now is off-limits for new leases.

“Moncrief’s retiring means that there is 7,500-acres of potential oil and gas development we don’t have to worry about any more,” Murray said. “We’re basically left with the one lease, the only one from when Secretary Watts opened this up in the 1980s. That means we need to continue trying to protect this area.”

Solonex LLC, based in Louisiana, is the final lone leaseholder, and that’s the subject of a lawsuit that’s currently under appeal, notes Peter Aengst with The Wilderness Society. The appeal stems from a September 2018 ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon said that former President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell improperly cancelled all of the leases along the Rocky Mountain Front in 2017.

Only Solonex and Moncrief filed two separate lawsuits over Jewell’s 2016 decision. The attorney for Solonex at the time the lawsuit was filed was William Perry Pendley with the Mountain States Legal Foundation. Pendley currently is the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management.

The land leased by Solonex and Moncrief is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, and also is a federally recognized Traditional Cultural District that runs along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front for more than 165,000 acres.

The Solonex lease is for about 6,200 acres adjacent to Glacier National Park; the Moncrief lease was just east of the Solonex lease.

Aengst said The Wilderness Society currently isn’t in negotiations with Solonex, and they expect a ruling on the appeal by the end of the year from the U.S. Court of Appeals.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester called for retiring the final Solonex lease, although the Montana Democrat didn't mention the company by name.

"This is a huge victory for the Blackfeet Nation and everyone who loves our public lands, and we're going to keep the pressure on until the Badger-Two Medicine is protected from development for generations to come," Tester said in a news release.

The Montana Wilderness Association's central Montana Field Director Joe Offer also praised the settlement, noting that it comes as a great relief for all those who hold the Badger-Two Medicine sacred. Offer said it will protect the grizzlies, elk, westslope cutthroat trout and other fish and wildlife that thrive in the area because of its wild characteristics.

"We stand by our tribal partners when they say that they will see the last of the Badger-Two Medicine leases retired," Offer said in a statement. "We too are more determined than ever to establish permanent protection, to ensure that no industrial development ever comes to this one-of-a-kind place."

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