BROWNING - A dramatic expanse of snow-marbled mountains runs like a borderline along the Blackfeet Indian Reservation's western edge, where a sea of rolling foothills intersects the rugged Rocky Mountain Front.
The wild landscape is striking for its beauty, but it is also symbolic. It marks a political boundary between the Blackfeet Nation and Glacier National Park, which shares its eastern border with the tribe as well as a rare and pristine ecosystem rich in wildlife and natural resources. Grizzly bear recovery areas and spring rangeland transect the boundary with tribal lands, as do quaking aspen, ground water, roving elk herds, bighorn sheep, wolves, eagles and bull trout.
But with virtually all of the Blackfeet Reservation's 1.5 million acres leased for oil and gas exploration, and renewed interest in development on a tract of land directly adjacent to Glacier National Park's eastern border, conservationists are actively working to protect the region from energy exploration.
Although the deal could be a financial windfall for a tribe badly in need of resources, some stakeholders are raising questions about what safeguards are in place to protect the land's natural resources and cultural significance.
Opponents to the exploration are concerned that it signifies the industrialization of Glacier Park's eastern front, and worry the idyllic landscape could soon be bristling with oil wells and flare stacks unless a moratorium is enforced.
"If I were still on the tribal council, I would be strongly motivated to vote against exploration on the western boundaries," said Tom Thompson, of Heart Butte, a former Blackfeet tribal councilman who for 16 years served as superintendent of Browning Public Schools. "The degradation to water purity, natural resources and the cultural significance of the land would be too damaging. We just can't afford it."
Unemployment among reservation residents hovers around 70 percent, and tribal government operates on a shoestring budget. If the oil and gas exploration is successful and wells go into production, royalties are set at 20 percent and the tribe stands to reap substantial benefits.
Blackfeet members like Thompson believe their homeland is valuable for its beauty and wildlife, however, and say the potential for more environmentally friendly financial gains are close at hand if only tribal leaders had the foresight.
"I think the current state of the land along the mountain front has the potential for economic development through more environmentally friendly ways - through ecotourism and other applications - than petroleum," Thompson said. "The dilemma, of course, is that the tribe is badly in need of resources."
The Blackfeet Reservation is part of the Bakken Shale formation, which is known for the oil boom sweeping North Dakota and Montana. Known to geologists as the Montana Thrust Belt, the reservation's western edge is thought to hold significant oil and natural gas reserves.
Seismic data gathered by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2002 that the region might harbor some 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 109 million barrels of oil.
A 2006 resolution by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council to lease land along the western edge of the reservation for oil and gas exploration 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.
One of the first companies to lease a large part of the Blackfeet Reservation, Anschutz recently renewed its interest and is actively looking for oil and gas, having hydraulically fractured its first well one year ago, with a half-dozen exploratory wells nearing completion.
Unlike other companies with lease rights to reservation lands, however, Anschutz has not conducted a leasewide environmental assessment, and remains tight-lipped about its plans for development. That means measuring the cumulative effect of drilling on the environment is a challenge until all planned drilling is completed.
A projected range of between 60 and 80 wells on the Anschutz lease has been acknowledged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management, which oversee mineral leases on the reservation. The private exploration company has not confirmed those intentions publicly, however, and several messages left last week for officials at Anschutz headquarters were not returned.
The company also has not announced results on its drilling program, but scouting reports indicate the possible discovery of hydrocarbons in five wells on Blackfeet acreage.
If recoverable oil and gas are discovered, as anticipated, the deal could prove extremely lucrative, according to Grinnell Day Chief, oil and gas manager for the tribe. Day Chief said environmental concerns are largely unfounded and tribal ordinances are in place to protect the Blackfeet Reservation's aquatic wetlands, soil and natural resources. The ordinance holds companies responsible in the event of a violation.
One such ordinance is currently being revised so that it better applies to oil and gas exploration.
"Oil and gas exploration has really exploded across Indian Country in recent years because of the new horizontal drilling technology," said David Spotted Eagle Jr., with the Blackfeet Environmental Office's Brownsfields Program. "You've never seen the reservation leased up like this. That wasn't addressed in the ordinance before the oil boom, so it's being revised. We have zero tolerance for spills and releases because we've reached a point where ignorance is no longer an excuse."
Still, conservation groups and concerned tribal members believe the Rocky Mountain Front is inviolable, and deserves protections and environmental safeguards that cannot coexist with full-field development, particularly given the proximity of the Anschutz lease to Glacier National Park.
Several wells have already been drilled inside the eastern boundary of an established grizzly bear recovery and distribution zone, and some critics of the exploration deal have called for a moratorium on drilling and exploration, or at least a buffer zone along the Park's boundary.
"We don't believe that pursuing leases that are directly adjacent to Glacier National Park is responsible or appropriate," Will Hammerquist, Glacier program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, said.
Also referred to as the "Crown of the Continent," the Rocky Mountain Front region comprises a rare ecosystem, and is one of the few places where the grizzly bear still ventures onto the Great Plains.
"We don't think these development activities can move forward without impairment to the Park's natural resources," Hammerquist said. "It is a very special and unique ecosystem, and bringing this sort of industrial activity to its front door cannot be done in a manner that protects the Park's values and resources."
Part of the problem, Hammerquist said, is the company's current stepwise approach to environmental assessments at individual well sites. He urged Anschutz to agree to a broader environmental impact assessment in lieu of its current "piecemeal" approach.
Officials at Glacier National Park are closely following the exploration activities as well, and have met with Anschutz representatives and submitted comments to the federal Environmental Protection Agency voicing their concerns.
Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright said those concerns largely focus on degradation to air and water quality, wildlife and the viewshed. He also expressed dissatisfaction with the limited scope of the company's environmental assessments to date, and pressed Anschutz to disclose its intentions for full-field development and submit to a broader assessment.
"This well-by-well approach is not as efficient as looking at the cumulative impact," Cartwright said. "As these wells start to add up, we hope the company will make a decision to do a more comprehensive, leasewide look that takes into account its potential impact on the entire area. My expectations are that Anschutz moves in that direction at the appropriate time, and I hope that time is soon."
Grizzly bear habitat is of special concern to wildlife biologists monitoring the exploration. As active well sites crop up inside recovery zones, they have the potential to disrupt grizzly migration paths.
Tribal bear biologist Dan Carney said each well site has been subject to an environmental assessment that takes into account the well's proximity to bear habitat and the miles of new road constructed.
"Our efforts have been to minimize any impact," Carney said.
Those environmental and biological assessments are conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, while U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are consulted for their biological opinion on threatened and endangered species. An initial environmental assessment was conducted during the leasing phase, but as Anschutz determines where it plans to drill separate assessments are conducted, Carney said.
"It is basically impossible to assess the impacts without knowing where the drill sites will be," Carney said. "We don't know exactly what the future looks like, but it's fair to say this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of wells planned and it is an ongoing process, but there is certainly the opportunity to do this responsibly."
For Joe Jessepe, a Blackfeet historian who has been organizing against oil and gas exploration along the Rocky Mountain Front for more than 25 years, the 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, the fracking process breaks the rock into a filigree of cracks and fissures, creating 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. The rest of the discharge must be contained and disposed of.
"People want clean drinking water, and that's a rare commodity as it is," Jessepe said.
Anschutz is already facing litigation over contaminated groundwater in Chemung County, New York. The lawsuit alleges the company's drilling is responsible for causing the contamination, while the company counters that the drinking water was contaminated before the drilling began. With no base-line data collected prior to drilling, however, there is no way to disprove the claim.
On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Anschutz was cited in early 2009 by the Blackfeet Environmental Office for a violation at one of the exploratory well sites, where a reserve pit of fracking liquid overflowed due to heavy snowfall, according to Blackfeet Environmental Office director Gerald Wagner. The company has otherwise complied with all regulations for drilling and the drilling process in Montana, Wagner said, but the case proves that risks exist.
The Blackfeet Environmental Office is charged with providing oversight of the well sites and responding to complaints of impacts to soil and water, as well as any other environmental concerns.
But as drilling increases, so too have the reserve pits, the contents of which must be disposed of at underground injection wells outside the reservation.
"With oil companies moving as fast as they are and using so much water, there is a lot of it stockpiled in pits and tanks around the reservation," said Blackfeet Environmental Office's Spotted Eagle. "There are always issues. Tanks have fallen over in high winds or overflowed due to heavy snow and we've required the companies to take them down."
The Blackfeet Environmental Office was recently contacted by a landowner reporting an oil spill along Cut Bank Creek that went unreported for a full month. A small unregulated flow line had broken about 50 miles east of the park boundary, and may have been leaking oil for up to two weeks before FX Energy Inc. discovered it June 12.
The Salt Lake City-based company fixed the break and shut down the two small oil wells that fed the line, but never reported it to the tribe or the Bureau of Land Management. An estimated 840 gallons spread nearly a mile down a coulee into Cut Bank Creek before a neighboring landowner discovered the stained ground July 12.
Within days, news outlets began covering the spill, due mostly to the citizen activism of Destini Vaile, a tribal member who has been studying the process of fracking for several years.
When Vaile learned about the cleanup on Cut Bank Creek, she offered to help; she also documented the spill and notified news organizations across the state.
"Nobody even knew this was happening," she said.
Vaile's opposition to fracking began two years ago with a research project she conducted as part of a NASA internship through the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. It was then that she learned of the push for oil and gas exploration on the reservation. Today she provides outreach and education to tribal members about its hazards.
"They leased away our entire reservation to these three companies and nobody really knows about it," Vaile said. "They have tried to placate people with promises of financial gain and employment, but we haven't really seen any of that. We each got a $200 check at Christmas, but there's probably as much employment from the cleanup as there is from the exploration."
Vaile has been coordinating her efforts with those of Jessepe, and they hope to soon host a showing of the award-winning documentary film "Gasland" at the Blackfeet Community College.
Jessepe is no stranger to grassroots activism, and 20 years ago worked with Browning naturalist Louis Bruno to help create the Glacier-Two Medicine alliance in response to an application to drill on the Badger-Two Medicine land southwest of the Reservation. Together, they continue to challenge the interests of oil and gas companies on the reservation. They are especially critical of the fracking process, which uses millions of gallons of water to frack each well site. The water must come from over-allocated water sources such as the Milk or St. Mary Rivers, or from Cutbank Creek, Bruno said.
Tapping the municipal water supply is irresponsible because Browning is already limited in its ability to provide clean drinking water, he said.
"We're sitting on really valuable real estate, and we can't just look the other way and let it be developed for oil and gas," he said.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.