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Company gets $2.6 million to relinquish oil lease on Montana land that’s sacred to Native Americans

by Michael Nguyen
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Indigenous Cultural Preservation

A sum of $2.6 million has been allocated to a Louisiana-based company in exchange for relinquishing the sole remaining oil and gas lease on U.S. forest land located near Montana’s Glacier National Park, a site of deep spiritual significance to Native Americans. This significant agreement, unveiled on Friday, is anticipated to bring an end to a protracted and decades-old dispute concerning the 10-square-mile (25-square-kilometer) oil and gas lease within the mountainous region known as the Badger-Two Medicine area in northwestern Montana.

Issued back in 1982, the lease has remained undeveloped and has sparked vehement opposition from tribal members, particularly from the Blackfoot tribes of southern Canada and Montana’s Blackfeet Nation. The Badger-Two Medicine area holds profound cultural significance, as it serves as the backdrop for the creation narrative of these indigenous groups.

As part of the arrangement, Solenex LLC, the company relinquishing the lease, will receive $2 million from the federal government and an additional $600,000 from a coalition of groups that participated in the case. Legal representation for Solenex was provided by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, headed by David McDonald. It is worth noting that the Wyss Foundation, established by Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, also contributed funding to support this accord, as stated by Tim Preso, legal counsel for a consortium of tribal and conservation organizations.

Although the specifics of the agreement have not been disclosed publicly, the deal marks a notable milestone in the ongoing legal journey surrounding the lease. Initially canceled in 2016 following a request from the Blackfoot tribes and conservation groups, the lease was subsequently reinstated by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in the past year. Judge Leon’s decision was based on his view that then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell lacked the authority to retract the lease so many years after its issuance. He contended that previous environmental studies and assessments had already evaluated the implications of drilling in the region.

While tribal cultural leaders appealed this ruling, it is expected that the appeal will be dismissed upon the full enactment of the agreement, a process that could take several months as indicated in court documents filed on Friday.

John Murray, Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, described the legal conflict over the lease as a “long-standing clash of cultures” and expressed his sense of relief that it has concluded. He emphasized the profound cultural value of the Badger Two Medicine area for the Blackfeet community.

Solenex founder Sidney Longwell, who passed away in 2020, had obtained the lease but had refrained from drilling activities on the site. Instead, bureaucratic hurdles within the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture prompted the company to initiate legal action in 2013.

McDonald, representing Solenex, regarded Judge Leon’s ruling from September 2022 as a highly favorable outcome, reinforcing the principle that officials cannot unilaterally revoke oil and gas leases without evidence of contractual breaches by the lessee. He underlined the significance of this settlement in maintaining legal principles and securing substantial compensation for his clients.

Issued among a batch of 47 leases in the Badger Two-Medicine area in 1982 by the Department of Interior, this particular lease faced unique circumstances. In 2006, Congress decided to withdraw the region from further leasing and offered tax incentives to lease holders, encouraging most to voluntarily relinquish their drilling rights.

In response to Friday’s announcement, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland conveyed that this development serves to safeguard the Badger Two Medicine area from impending development threats and underscores the vital role of preserving such lands for future generations. Notably, in 2014, the Department of Agriculture designated the Badger Two-Medicine as a Traditional Cultural District, highlighting its profound cultural and historical value.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Indigenous Cultural Preservation

What is the significance of the oil lease relinquishment near Montana’s Glacier National Park?

The oil lease relinquishment involves a Louisiana company receiving $2.6 million to give up the last remaining oil and gas lease on U.S. forest land near Montana’s Glacier National Park. This area holds deep cultural and spiritual significance for Native American tribes.

Why was the oil lease a source of dispute?

The oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area of northwestern Montana has been the subject of a decades-long dispute due to its location within the sacred landscape of the Blackfoot tribes and Montana’s Blackfeet Nation. Tribal members vehemently opposed drilling in this area.

Who is involved in the agreement?

Solenex LLC, the Louisiana-based company holding the lease, will receive $2 million from the federal government and an additional $600,000 from a coalition of groups that intervened in the case. The Mountain States Legal Foundation represented Solenex, and the Wyss Foundation, established by Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, also contributed funding.

What legal developments led to this agreement?

The lease was initially canceled in 2016, but U.S. District Judge Richard Leon reinstated it in 2022, citing lack of authority to withdraw the lease. Tribal cultural leaders appealed this decision, and the appeal is expected to be dismissed upon full enactment of the agreement.

What is the cultural significance of the Badger Two Medicine area?

The Badger Two Medicine area is central to the cultural heritage of the Blackfoot tribes and Montana’s Blackfeet Nation. It is tied to their creation story and holds immense importance in their way of life.

How does this agreement impact future development?

This agreement concludes the dispute and secures the protection of the Badger Two Medicine area from development threats. It recognizes the need to preserve the land’s cultural and historical significance for future generations.

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