HELENA — Amid driving rain and lingering cloud banks pushing down through narrow valleys in Glacier National Park, Lou Bruno, Kendall Flint and Leanne Falcon of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance crested the ridge, revealing the Two Medicine River gushing through the drainage below.
It’s a place conservationists and the Blackfeet Tribe have advocated to protect for more than 30 years in the face of energy development, and the subject of a fight in which Bruno never expected to find himself.
Bruno, 69, grew up in New York City before moving to East Glacier and teaching school in Browning. His first taste of a northern Montana winter quickly outweighed the beauty, and he admits he initially hated the unrelenting cold and isolation of the area. Gradually, he grew to love life in tiny East Glacier.
One evening in 1984, a woman from the area came to use his phone. She was rallying locals to a public meeting about a proposed oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area, and Bruno decided to attend.
“Previously, I was never involved in any kind of politics whatsoever,” he said. “I used the woods and loved the outdoors, but was very ignorant of the issues around wilderness and wild lands.”
U.S. Forest Service officials leading the meeting acted like they were only considering public comment out of the goodness of their hearts and had already decided to grant leases in the Badger, Bruno said. The meeting made him angry, not only over the environmental concerns but because the agency disregarded the public.
“We’ve given agencies public trust to manage our resources for the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and I naively thought they were doing just that,” he said. “I tell you, something happened there that changed my whole life.”
The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management did approve leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, and although Bruno spent some time hunting and fishing in the foothills, he had never made his way into the 130,000-acre roadless landscape.
His first trip left him overwhelmed with the emotion of knowing that the incredible place was under threat, he said.
“The very first time I saw it, it grabbed me and I said, ‘I’m not going to let them have it,’” he said. “It’s hauntingly beautiful.”
Shortly after the ill-fated public meeting, Bruno attended a convention of the Montana Wilderness Association with the goal of starting a group to fight the Forest Service and the energy companies.
“None of us had the slightest idea how to do it,” he said.
Bruno got advice from conservation-minded friends such as Bill Cunningham, Chuck Jonkel and Jasper Carlton, and he and others along the front founded the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance. The alliance, with the help of other conservation groups, successfully appealed the leasing decisions for nearly two decades.
“I think they awakened a sleeping giant, and Lou and others became a force,” said Flint, president of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance. “It wasn’t long before the community went from not aware and not involved to becoming a solid and powerful group.”
Flint, an East Glacier resident and Browning physician, recalled his first trip into Badger Canyon with Bruno. The canyon provided stunning scenery with cascading waterfalls, turquoise pools and plenty of wildlife. As they hiked, Bruno told Flint about former Sen. John Melcher’s proposal to build a dam in the canyon.
“Then he stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Build a dam here? Over my dead body,’” Flint said. “And he wasn’t joking.”
Bruno spent much of his free time traveling to talk to anyone who would listen. He drove to Missoula to speak to college students and then back to Browning to teach the next day. Members of the alliance also took people on wilderness walks, wanting the land to speak for itself, Bruno said.
“He’s a passionate guy, and that fires people up and scares some people off, too. But for the most part, it’s been vital,” Flint said.
By 1997, a more conservation-minded Forest Service placed a 10-year moratorium on new oil and gas leases along the Rocky Mountain Front, including the Badger-Two Medicine to allow time for a cultural resources inventory. Suspension of exploration on existing leases coincided with the moratorium on new leases.
“I have no doubt we’d be talking about fracking wells there if we hadn’t stopped them,” Bruno said. “We were once enemies, but we’ve kind of allied with the Forest Service now.”
The Badger is considered a sacred place to the Blackfeet Tribe, and in 2006 the Blackfeet Community College completed the inventory of and recommended protection for 93,000 acres as a traditional cultural district under the National Register of Historic Places. Subsequent efforts by the tribe succeeded in making the full 130,000 acres eligible for traditional cultural district designation.
Also in 2006, then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus drafted a bill that made the moratorium permanent and offered tax incentives to energy companies to sell their leases to conservation groups. The bill passed, and all but two of the leases were eventually relinquished.
In 2009, the Forest Service eliminated motorized travel in much of the area, leaving access up to strong legs and the backs of horses. The Badger is now just how Bruno and other quiet users like it, minus a pipeline that runs through the foothills.
But the fight is far from over.
One of the remaining leaseholders, Sidney Longwell of Louisiana, asked the Forest Service to lift the suspension in May 2013. The agency denied the request, and Longwell, under his company Solenex, filed a federal lawsuit to force the Forest Service to act. The lawsuit charges that the federal government has unlawfully delayed action that would allow Solenex to drill.
As recently as last month, a federal judge denied intervenor status in the lawsuit to the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance and other groups, ruling that conservation interests were already represented by the federal agencies.
Bruno said he’s scared by the decision and being back at square one with Longwell. He and others maintain that the leases are illegal — the product of a Forest Service once beholden to energy companies that used cookie-cutter environmental assessments to approve leases in sensitive habitats.
“Even now, if Longwell wins his case, I’ll be there lying in front of the bulldozer getting arrested,” Bruno said.
High above Longwell’s lease near Hall Creek in the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area, a tiny plane flown by Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight bounced in the winds peeling off Glacier’s peaks. Bruno sat up front, describing the topography of the land, its variety of vegetation and importance to wildlife.
A mosaic of greens showed changes in vegetation from grasses to aspen stands to pine trees. The jagged skyline of Glacier National Park dominates the north, and the distant peaks of the Great Bear and Bob Marshall wildernesses loom to the southwest. The Badger sits nestled in between.
“I think about what I’m doing here today to keep development out of there and empower new activists,” Bruno said. “I want them to know how dire it was at the time. As bad as things are, look at history, and it’s been people that have made it happen on the ground.”