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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jan 10 2017

History Made over the Long Haul

Cancellation of last remaining leases in Badger-Two Medicine marks a pinnacle in an epic battle that began 35 years ago

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Someone once said that public land conservation is the work of a lifetime. Our nation’s legal, administrative, and political processes move at a glacial, grinding pace. Lasting victories for our public lands are few and far between, and the fight to protect these places requires, if nothing else, a great deal of patience and persistence.

All of which makes the decision by the US Department of the Interior to cancel all remaining oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine worth celebrating. We cannot yet claim that the threat of industrial development in the Badger has been totally removed, since one of the lease cancellations is still being challenged in court. We can nonetheless count today as a majory victory, and like most great conservation victories, this one’s been a long time coming. The story of the fight to protect the Badger is filled with individuals who have put in the work of a lifetime. Ultimately, though, it’s a story that transcends the reach of any single lifetime. It’s a story about the power and determination of countless people who were able to find common cause and create partnerships that stood the test of time and endured over the long haul.

Commitment matters. Endurance matters. Longevity matters. By joining organizations like MWA, the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, and other groups, you and I gain the collective strength and wherewithal needed to protect the places we love – places like the Badger-Two Medicine. Truth be told, this is how we, to quote Ed Abbey, “outlive the bastards.” 

I first encountered the Badger-Two Medicine – the landscape and the fight to protect it – 30 years ago. Back in 1986, I was a 23-year-old transplanted Midwestern kid attending the University of Montana. To this day, I still remember my first visit to the Badger-Two Medicine, gazing dumbfounded at peaks named after mythic Blackfeet heroes – Feather Woman, Morningstar, Scarface and Poia – as a fierce October wind gnawed at my face and brought tears to my eyes. Equally vivid are memories of another cold day that same autumn, this time on the UM Oval, when hundreds of us – Blackfeet tribal members, UM students, and seasoned conservationists – marched in solidarity to the sound of a Blackfeet drum as we protested plans to open up the Badger-Two Medicine to oil and gas development. Forever seared into my mind, these images shape my understanding of this singular place and the inspiring story of the people who have fought so long and hard to protect it.

Of course, that day in Missoula is just a snapshot – one event in a prolonged battle that was already raging and would continue well into the future. By that time, the federal government had already issued leases to Solenex, Chevron, Fina, and others. Opponents, in turn, had responded with lawsuits challenging those leases. By 1986, MWA’s John Gatchell and Lou Bruno had been fighting the battle for more than a decade - pursuing legal challenges, fighting bad forest plans, and seeking protective designations for the Badger-Two Medicine. In those days, Buster Yellow Kidney, Curly Bear Wagner, Woody Kipp, and other Blackfeet tribal members led the charge, while activists Bob Yetter and Mike Bader and lawyer Tom France did all they could to keep development at bay.

After a few quiet years, the battle heated up again in the early 1990s when the oil and gas industry redoubled its efforts to drill the Badger. Gatchell and MWA members Gene Sentz and Roy Jacobs sounded the alarm and rallied supporters on behalf of the Badger and other endangered areas further south on the Rocky Mountain Front, including Deep Creek and the Blackleaf.

In talking about those days, long-time MWA member Dan Bennett recalled one event, in particular, that helped galvanize public opposition to oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine and along the entire Rocky Mountain Front. In 1994, about 20 MWA members from northcentral Montana traveled to the Pincher Creek oil fields in Alberta. The full-scale industrialization and devastation they witnessed over those few days and the grim stories they heard from Canadian conservationists, biologists, and outfitters left little doubt as to the severity of the threat that oil and gas development posed to the Badger and the rest of the Rocky Mountain Front. They returned to the U.S. with the dire warnings of their Canadian hosts ringing in their ears: “Fight the first well. If you let them get started, you’ll never be able to stop it.”

And fight they did. The mid-1990s saw a rising tide of public opposition to any oil and gas development anywhere on the Front, including in the Badger. Legal and administrative battles were accompanied by an outpouring of public testimony from folks who spoke passionately of their love for the Badger and their desire to see it protected. Some of the Badger’s most ardent defenders in those days included the likes of Bimbo Hirst and Donna Caruso Hirst, Keith and Lesley Shaw, Ripley Hugo, Alice Gleason, Richard Jackson, Susan Colvin, Darrell Kipp, and many, many others.
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Commitment matters. Endurance matters. Longevity matters. By joining organizations like MWA, the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, and other groups, you and I gain the collective strength and wherewithal needed to protect the places we love – places like the Badger-Two Medicine. Truth be told, this is how we, to quote Ed Abbey, “outlive the bastards.”

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Then, in 1997, something amazing happened – something that was all but unthinkable even five or ten years before. Then-Lewis & Clark National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora issued her landmark decision to put a moratorium on all future oil and gas leasing on Forest Service lands along the Rocky Mountain Front, including the Badger-Two Medicine. With that bold and courageous act, the tide turned. Her decision opened the door for the string of victories that followed: legislation enacted to withdraw federal oil and gas leases on the Front (2006), a non-motorized travel plan for the Badger-Two Medicine (2009), and passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (2014).

Despite these important victories, however, the Badger-Two Medicine still remained threatened by the specter of oil and gas development from a handful of remaining leaseholders. That threat became a tangible reality in 2013 when Solenex sued the federal government to lift the long-held suspension of its Hall Creek lease. Even this threat became an opportunity, however, by forcing the federal government to re-examine the original leases and draw the inescapable conclusion that not only the Solenex lease, but all 18 remaining leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, were issued illegally and needed to be removed once and for all. 

The cancellation of all remaining oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine is an incredible victory for this landscape and the people who have worked so hard to protect it. In celebrating this victory, we need to pause and thank the many people who have spent decades of their lives fighting for this day, people such as Chief Earl Old Person, John Murray, Kendall Flint, as well as those individuals I’ve already mentioned and dozens more whom I have unintentionally failed to mention. We should also honor those who have worked so hard in recent years to get the job done, including Tim Preso, Michael Jamison, and MWA Rocky Mountain Front Field Director Casey Perkins.

Ultimately, what made the reality of a lease-free Badger-Two Medicine possible were the steadfast efforts of all these folks working as part of movement that included members of the Blackfeet Tribe and its Business Council, guided by visionary leader Harry Barnes, as well as the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance and its dedicated band of volunteers.

As MWA members, we literally celebrate this victory by association – we helped make this happen. We’ve been hard at work protecting wild places like the Badger-Two Medicine since 1958, and we’ll be at it for a long time to come – long after I’m dead and gone. For me, that too is something to celebrate – a little taste of immortality!

Individuals make a difference; individuals working together over the long haul make history.

- Scott Friskics served as MWA’s president from 2013 to 2014. He is director of Sponsored Programs at Aaniiih Nakoda College.