UM prof: Blackfeet Tribe should co-manage Badger-Two Medicine with Forest Service

During his tenure, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed designating the Badger-Two Medicine as a national monument. (Tony Bynum)

The Blackfeet Tribe has battled for decades against oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine, but co-managing the national forest might be the best strategy for heading off future threats, according to a University of Montana professor.

Martin Nie, director of UM’s Bolle Center for People and Forests, said the Blackfeet could better protect the Badger-Two Medicine area if they could partner with the U.S. Forest Service. The time has never been better to work that out, Nie said, because the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is revising its forest plan, which will guide management for at least the next 15 to 20 years.

“Planning is not that fun to talk about. But consider the significance of a forest plan: All those (previous) threats to the Badger-Two Medicine could have been prevented with a meaningful forest plan. But that forest plan said nothing about managing the Badger-Two Medicine, so we got oil and gas leases and motorized use,” Nie told about four dozen attendees at the UM law school’s Indian Law Week.

The Badger-Two Medicine is a rugged 130,000-acre region along the Rocky Mountain Front that abuts the Blackfeet Reservation and Glacier National Park. The area is sacred to the Blackfeet, but the Reagan administration opened the region to oil and gas development in 1982. The tribe and environmental groups have pushed back for the past 35 years.

Most recently, after numerous studies and hearings, the Blackfeet celebrated when the Obama administration cancelled the two remaining leases in 2016. But the oil companies sued, and last year a Washington, D.C., judge ruled that the administration overstepped its rights.

The Interior Department, led by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, filed an appeal. But two weeks ago, as David Bernhardt was headed for confirmation as the new Interior secretary, the DOI cancelled its appeal of one of the leases, opening the door for Texas-based Moncrief to pursue exploration.

Time and again, the tribe has been forced into a reactive role, playing defense when companies pushed the DOI to process their proposals or when the USFS allowed unregulated motorized use in the Badger-Two Medicine. Creating a system that would allow the tribe to co-manage the area could change that, Nie said.

“The term ‘co-management’ can be controversial, it’s in some dispute, it’s very politicized. But what it does mean? It provides the tribe a more proactive and substantive, meaningful engagement in terms of how to manage public lands,” he said.

Nie gave examples where different versions of co-management have been put in place.

The prime example is Washington tribes’ active participation in the management of salmon runs in Pacific Northwest rivers. But that required a century-long struggle to work out the particulars that allowed the tribes to restore their traditions.

The National Bison Range north of Missoula provides a different framework, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the range but contracts with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to carry out certain tasks. It’s an uneasy situation, though, because the CSKT have expressed their desire to manage the range themselves.

“This is a weaker form of co-management. I don’t even know if I want to call it that,” Nei said. “(Possible CSKT management) has been terribly controversial, and one of the reasons is that (the range) never had a comprehensive conservation plan, no plan detailing how the Bison Range had to be administered. So there was some mistrust about how this place might be managed in the future.”

The controversy involves several issues, including racial and cultural undercurrents, Nie said. Some people have even questioned whether transferring complete control of areas like the Bison Range or the Badger-Two Medicine to tribes would constitute a public land giveaway, and they worry it could open the door to those wanting to transfer federal lands to the states.

But if management plans, such as forest plans, spell out how agencies are expected to work with tribes, it could give tribes a better seat at the table, Nie said. And plans can dispel any racially motivated suspicions because everyone knows what to expect.

“(The details) can be negotiated,” Nie said. “Critics of co-management might say ‘I’m not going to give authority to the Blackfeet to co-manage anything unless I know how the place is going to be managed.’ If you get a meaningful plan, then you have some insurance.”

Blackfeet members in the audience said they don’t support co-management because the federal government always has the final say. So just having a seat at the table doesn’t go far enough.

“I don’t see where co-management increases the tribal position. I think we need more experimentation with repatriation to enable and allow tribal management. If co-management could equate to that sort of scenario, we may have some sort of progress. Until then, it’s just a gloss,” said a Blackfeet woman.

Nie said Congress would be unlikely to give tribes full control of public land, but having forest plans that require better consultation with tribes could be a first step. One New Mexico plan even gives tribes the power to veto activities they oppose.

“That legislation was pretty unprecedented,” Nie said. “I think that’s a step that could be taken in permanent legislation for the Badger-Two Medicine to say the tribe determines what is compatible in this area and they get to withhold consent. That would be co-management as far as my definition.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com