Just days after celebrating a court decision canceling the last oil exploration lease in the Badger-Two Medicine landscape, the Blackfeet Nation released a draft congressional bill to permanently protect the land as a cultural heritage area.
“It’s a blueprint which we hope the congressional delegation will follow,” Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray said on Thursday. “It’s a Heritage area, which would be the first of its kind. It would create a special relationship between the Blackfeet Nation and its neighbors, achieving the goal of permanently protecting the area. We have a history since Lewis and Clark of defending our lands. We don’t know what’s going to be in the future, so we’d like to see it once and for all permanently protected.”
The Badger-Two Medicine region covers about 130,000 acres bordered by the Blackfeet Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. The Blackfeet Tribe considers it the home of many of its origin stories, and members practice traditional ceremonies there.
The proposal would continue to allow public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, horsepacking and other traditional uses, including grazing. It would allow noncommercial timber harvest for forest health and fire protection. And it would build on the area’s existing federal designation as a Traditional Cultural District to protect tribal treaty rights regarding shared oversight and management of the landscape.
It would create a citizen advisory group with tribal and non-tribal stakeholders to work with the U.S. Forest Service on a long-term management plan.
The area was part of the original Blackfeet Indian Reservation, but sold to the U.S. government in 1895 as part of the “ceded strip” that also nearly doubled the size of Glacier National Park. In 2017, former congressman and secretary of the Department of Interior Ryan Zinke proposed making it a national monument. That proposal was never acted upon. Meanwhile, federal efforts to encourage oil and gas exploration in the 1980s resulted in numerous lease sales to private energy development companies. Most of those were found to be improperly granted and subsequently canceled or reimbursed.
“But this is the first time in 40 years that we have been out from under the threat of industrial leases,” said Terry Tatsey, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “This is a real opportunity to get it right, once and for all. The Cultural Heritage Area plan is the first proposal to be written with Blackfeet involvement, and with Blackfeet values included.”
Murray said the proposal was released Thursday in hopes of getting before Montana’s congressional delegation before U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte depart for summer recess. If one or more of them decide to sponsor the bill, that might give it time to get into the congressional hearing schedule this year.
Tester, a Democrat and Montana’s senior delegation member, “supports permanently protecting the Badger-Two Medicine and he will be reviewing this legislation,” according to spokesman Roy Loewenstein. After last week’s court decision canceling the last oil lease in the area, Tester said he was “going to keep pushing until we make sure the Badger-Two Medicine is permanently protected for generations to come.”
Republican Daines’ office released a statement that “Senator Daines is looking at the legislation and will be working with the tribe, local officials and stakeholders on best steps forward. The Senator will continue to monitor this closely and believes that it is important we preserve the unique heritage of this area.”
Republican Gianforte’s office released a statement that “Greg will review the proposal thoroughly and continue working with the Blackfeet to find the best possible solution for the Badger-Two Medicine.”
The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the Blackfoot Confederacy, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (representing tribes of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho) have all endorsed the proposal.