Back in March, nine days into his new post as Interior Department secretary, Ryan Zinke accepted a blessing ceremony from Blackfeet tribal leaders, and heard their request to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area next to their reservation by Glacier National Park.
On Sunday, a leaked draft of Zinke’s report to President Donald Trump on revisions to national monument indicates he proposes to grant that wish.
On the next-to-last page of a 19-page memo advising Trump to amend the boundaries and management plans of 10 national monuments, Zinke suggested the creation of three new monuments:
• the Union Army Camp Nelson training center for African-American soldiers in the Civil War in Kentucky,
• the home of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.
• And No. 3? The Badger-Two Medicine area.
“Another location that may qualify for protection under the Act is the Badger-Two Medicine area, which is approximately 130,000 acres within the Lewis and Clark National Forest in northwestern Montana,” the memo states.
“It is bounded by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. This area of the Rocky Mountain Front was designated a Traditional Cultural District in May 2014, and is considered sacred by the Blackfeet Nation. It is candidate for co-management with the Blackfeet tribe.”
“That caught a lot of people by surprise,” said Land Tawney, the Missoula-based executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who had just visited with Zinke about monuments the week before. “As you’re attacking the seminal accomplishments of (President Theodore) Roosevelt and at same time talking about adding a monument, it didn’t make much sense.”
The Washington Post obtained a copy of the draft report, stating it was issued on Aug. 24. The report more specifically details concerns with 10 national monuments, starting with the most controversial — Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon and California, Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The leaked report does not specify acreage changes or specific management plan revisions.
Blackfeet cultural leaders consider the Badger-Two Medicine area a sacred center of their creation stories and an important part of their traditional homeland. During the 1980s, Reagan Administration officials granted numerous oil and gas exploration leases in the area, without consulting the Blackfeet tribal government or doing proper environmental analysis. While similar leases in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex were ruled legally invalid, the Badger-Two Medicine holdings remained unresolved until 2016.
Last year, a lengthy legal and administrative campaign nearly ended with then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally canceling most of the Bader-Two Medicine leases. Two leaseholders still maintain they have rights to drill in the area, and those cases are pending in court.
The National Parks Conservation Association was one of the organizations assisting the Blackfeet tribal government in overturning the drilling leases. Spokesman Michael Jamison said Zinke’s suggestion to protect the Badger-Two Medicine while reducing other national monuments was confusing.
“Everyone is grateful to see Secretary Zinke paying attention to permanent protection of the Badger-Two Medicine,” Jamison said. “But it’s not acceptable to propose monument protection of the Badger while at same time proposing to strip protections from Bears Ears and other sacred places for Native Americans. If monuments aren’t permanent, we don’t want monument status. If it’s so transitory and impermanent it can be undone by the stroke of a pen in some future administration, it’s not permanent protection.”
Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift answered a Missoulian request for more information about the Badger-Two Medicine proposal with a one-sentence response: “Please direct all questions regarding the document to the white house.” The White House press office did not respond to emails from the Missoulian requesting further comment on Tuesday.
Blackfeet tribal officials also did not return Missoulian requests for comment on Tuesday.
Trump called for a review of national monument designations created or expanded since 1996 in April. In May, Zinke ordered a public comment period focusing on 21 monuments, including Montana’s Missouri Breaks National Monument. On Aug. 24, his office released a public report that contained few specific recommendations about changes, although it did remove the Missouri Breaks from the review list. The leaked draft memo dated the same day was much more detailed.
“President Trump was correct in tasking the Secretary of Interior (Secretary) to review and provide recommendations of all monuments that were designated from1996 to the present that are 1) 100,000 acres or greater in size or 2) were made without adequate public consultation,” Zinke stated in his draft executive summary. “This is far from the first time an examination of scope of monuments has been conducted.”
The draft memo states “No president should use the authority under the Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object.”
Among the concerns the memo investigates, public access comes up repeatedly.
“(W)hen developing transportation plans, Federal land managers have found the most efficient way to protect objects in monuments is to limit access, whether by ceasing to maintain roads or outright closing them. Therefore, public access is of great concern related to monument designations. Hunters, anglers and recreationists are at times prevented from visiting these lands. Further, some tribes raised concerns from some tribes (sic) that their cultural practices such as wood and herb gathering are constrained by lack of access.”
Supporters of the review argued it would restore state and local control, and re-open federal land to resource extraction including timber, grazing, petroleum and coal.
For example, Grand Stairway-Escalante “contain(s) an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits,” Zinke’s draft memo noted. But the recommendations that follow don’t mention resource extraction while asking the president to “protect objects and prioritize public access; infrastructure upgrades, repair, and maintenance; traditional use; tribal cultural use; and hunting and fishing rights.”
The final move will be the president’s. Trump has not mentioned a deadline for his own response to the report.
“Do they do it all at once, or string it out individually?” Tawney wondered. “They could sit and do nothing. They could kick it to Congress. We’re in wait-and-see mode.”