Protection of the Badger-Two Medicine area south of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation moved a step closer on Wednesday when U.S. Sen. Jon Tester introduced legislation to designate it a cultural heritage area.
“For thousands of years Badger-Two Medicine has shaped the identity of our people,” Blackfeet Nation Chief Earl Old Person said in a press release on Wednesday. “I have always been told by our elders that our responsibility was to save those lands for our children and all future generations of Pikuni People. Sen. Tester has given us an opportunity to safeguard our sacred places, and to protect them always for the Blackfeet Nation and for all Montanans who use these mountains.”
The bill designates 127,000 acres in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest as the Badger-Two Medicine Cultural Heritage Area. This differs from a federal wilderness or national monument designation in keeping most activities currently allowed on the landscape, such as livestock grazing, non-mechanized recreation and maintenance of existing structures and rights-of-way. It would prohibit future commercial timber harvest, new road construction, motorized or mountain bike travel, and any new structures such as water facilities, pipelines or buildings.
It would also require the U.S. Forest Service to consult with the Blackfeet Tribe on management activities and consider tribal concerns for the area. Efforts to protect the area have been percolating since 1982 when the federal government granted 47 energy exploration leases in the area. The tribe and a coalition of conservation groups spent decades fighting for the withdrawal of those leases, with the last remaining one rejected by a court decision last month.
“A few weeks ago, the Blackfeet Tribe and the people of Montana won a huge victory for our public lands when the last oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine was remanded to a lower court,” Tester wrote in a press release on Wednesday. “Now it’s time we build on this momentum and continue the fight to safeguard this sacred area, which is why I am introducing legislation that honors the will of the Blackfeet Tribe and of public lands owners across our state by permanently protecting the Badger-Two Medicine for future generations.”
The Badger-Two Medicine area lies surrounded by the Blackfeet Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. According to Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray, its landscape intertwines with Blackfeet language, belief systems and origin stories.
“Our traditional Blackfeet knowledge system is intact, but it is in a fragile condition,” Murray said. “It cannot withstand many more assaults. If we don’t protect it now, we may lose those parts of Blackfeet knowledge and culture forever.”
This spring, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council closed all non-essential travel through the reservation, including the eastern entrances to Glacier National Park, as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes linked the area to the tribe’s survival.
“The Badger-Two Medicine is like a church to our people,” Barnes said. “It is a powerful place of healing. In this time of COVID-19, with our elders and our communities at such risk, it is inspiring to know we will protect the healing wellsprings of Blackfeet culture.”
A cultural heritage area is a relatively unique form of federal land designation, according to Tester's office. During court-ordered reviews of the energy leases in 2015, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation declared the area a Traditional Cultural District in respect of its significance to Blackfeet spiritual and cultural ties there.
“Senator Tester worked with the Tribe to put together language that would give them a unique level of oversight for managing their sacred lands, while allowing existing uses to continue,” according to Tester's office. “Senator Tester felt it was very important for the Tribe to have a strong voice in management of the area, particularly after they weren’t consulted on the original leasing decision back in the 1980s. This is also compatible with Forest Service’s management for the area, which recognizes the area’s spiritual importance to the Tribe, and seeks to limit impacts.”
Democrat Tester's bill will likely go before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which includes fellow Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana.
“For decades, the spectacular lands of the Badger-Two Medicine have been overshadowed by a cloud of uncertainty. Now that cloud is lifting,” said Michael Jamison, Crown of the Continent Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “This legislation is especially powerful, as it not only protects our wild heritage but also gives voice to those who, throughout too much of our history, have not been heard. It’s time to permanently protect the Badger-Two Medicine’s wildlands and wildlife, and to honor forever the Blackfeet Nation’s last cultural refuge.”
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