Final oil lease retired in the Badger Two Medicine area
(Missoula Current) A court settlement has eliminated the last federal oil-and-gas lease that threatened to mar the Badger-Two Medicine wild lands of the northern Rocky Mountain Front.
On Friday, leaders of the Blackfeet Nation and several conservation groups announced that a settlement had been reached with the oil company, LLC, to permanently retire its oil and gas lease on the Helena National Forest. The settlement ends a 10-year court battle that capped off a 40-year struggle to stop oil and gas development in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area that is sacred to the Blackfeet Nation.
“Hearing this great news, my first thoughts were of all those Blackfeet individuals that did not live to see this day,” said Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray. “Basically, the area now has permanent protection. I have no hard feelings about this protracted clash of cultures. I’m just relieved it is over. The Badger Two Medicine is significant to the Blackfeet way of life from the past, now and in the future. My heartfelt thanks go out to so many great people involved in this struggle for the last four decades.”
The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council credited Hansjörg Wyss and the Wyss Foundation with helping to secure the agreement. It also acknowledged the good-faith efforts of other corporate holders of Badger-Two Medicine oil and gas leases who worked with the tribe to voluntarily relinquish their claims.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of the Interior, under the leadership of Secretary James Watt, auctioned off much of the Badger-Two Medicine area to oil and gas developers for a dollar an acre without the Tribe’s approval. Fina had one of the leases, which Louisiana-based Solenex took over in 2012.
That led to decades of legal wrangling and political manipulation as the Blackfeet tribe and conservation groups opposed the petroleum industry and federal agencies to keep oil and gas out of the wild region between the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Glacier National Park.
In 2015, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation - a body that advises federal land managers on the prioritization of historic preservation over resource extraction - held a hearing in Choteau where dozens of locals and tribal members testified on the area’s importance to tribal history and spirituality. The council agreed, saying development "would result in serious and irreparable degradation of Badger-Two Medicine.”
A year later, Devon Energy retired its 15 leases in return for sunk costs.
That left only Moncrief Oil and Solenex holding leases, which the Interior Department tried to cancel in early 2017. The companies sued, and the leases were reinstated by a D.C. federal district judge.
Tribal members and conservation groups appealed. Before the case went further, Moncrief settled out of court, agreeing to permanently retire its 7,640-acre lease in October 2019. But Solenex, backed by its attorney William Perry Pendley of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, refused to settle. Pendley was also the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, appointed at the time by President Donald Trump.
The D.C. court of appeals ruled in favor of the tribes and conservation groups. But a year ago, the same D.C. court judge, Richard Leon, reactivated Solenex’s 6,200-acre lease. So the Blackfeet-conservation coalition appealed again.
This time, Solenex finally settled before the appellate court heard the case.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented the tribal and conservation coalition in the lawsuit and settlement negotiations, was proud of the coalition’s efforts.
“When the coalition stood up to defend this region against the leaseholder’s original lawsuit filing in June of 2013, we had no idea that we were embarking on more than a decade of litigation, with many twists and turns along the way. But the Badger-Two Medicine region, all the people and wildlife who depend on it, and today’s result was well worth the fight,” Preso said.
The Mountain States Legal Foundation also called it a “victorious conclusion,” saying the coalition “agreed to drop their appeals and pay Solenex —the company that Sidney (Longwell) founded—for an end to the litigation.”
In a post on its website, the Mountain States Legal Foundation said the coalition agreed to pay Solenex $2.64 million for the lease, with the federal government supplying $2 million, and the intervening conservation groups supplying the other $640,000. The intervenors included the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Wilderness Society and the Montana Wilderness Association, now known as Wild Montana.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.