An energy company with oil and gas leases across much of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation's western edge has suspended plans to drill a well near a culturally sacred ridge, halting the operation after tribal members voiced concern that it would spiritually denude the site.
The ridge, called Red Blanket Butte, is located northwest of Browning and about six miles from Glacier National Park's eastern edge. It has long been honored as a spiritual reservoir and burial ground by Blackfeet traditionalists who still visit the site on vision quests, for fasting and to observe other cultural ceremonies.
The Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. proposed drilling an exploratory oil and gas well on a 640-acre lease unit near the ridge, called Red Blanket 1-13, and recently conducted an environmental assessment of the project. As the public comment period drew to a close last week, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Blackfeet Agency's Tribal Historic Preservation Office received strong opposition from tribal members who argued that the drilling would infringe on the religious site.
"We work closely with regulators, the tribe and the community to address these issues when they arise," said Margot Timbel, Anschutz senior vice president, in a prepared statement from the company. "The environmental assessment process worked as it was intended. It identified a critical issue to be addressed by the agencies and Anschutz."
A 2006 resolution by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council to lease land along the western edge of the reservation for oil and gas exploration allows Anschutz to drill exploratory wells on a 400,000-acre tract of reservation land, which abuts Glacier Park's eastern boundary.
Ron Falcon, who is studying environmental science at Blackfeet Community College, said he learned of the proposed Red Blanket well site in an environmental law and ethics class. The Blackfeet man said he comes from a traditional family background and, recognizing the ridge's cultural value, decided to organize opposition to the drilling operation.
"Growing up in a traditional setting, preserving our culture is important to me," Falcon said. "I figured if I got the word out I could help stop it, but I knew I had to act fast."
Armed with a knowledge of federal regulatory acts such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Executive Order of Indian Sacred Sites, Falcon was aware that federal agencies are required to recognize and accommodate the ceremonial use of culturally significant areas.
"I started spreading the word and once people were aware of the proposal they really responded," he said.
One tribal member who wrote a letter opposing the energy project is Annie Belcourt, who grew up near Red Blanket Butte and whose family owns land in the area. Belcourt said her grandparents, sister, aunts and uncles are buried at the site. Her ancestors documented the cultural significance of the site in ethnographic histories that provide accounts of Okan ceremonies, or Sun Dances, which the Blackfeet hold in the highest regard.
"This area has cultural, ecological, spiritual and familial importance to my family and the Blackfeet Tribe. This area is only six miles from Glacier National Park and is home to the headwaters of the Cut Bank and later Missouri rivers. It is one of the most beautiful and culturally significant areas of the nation," she wrote. "The cultural and spiritual legacy of our children is too precious for us to jeopardize for short-term profits."
Woody Kipp, a Blackfeet Community College instructor and journalist, was a founding member of the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, and along with other tribal members fought to keep the United States Forest Service from allowing oil and gas development in the rugged and remote Badger-Two Medicine region, a 139,000-acre area named for the two rivers that flow through it.
Kipp was also instrumental in passing a resolution that banned development, including oil and gas exploration, on Chief Mountain, which holds deep cultural and religious significance to the Blackfeet. Today, drilling is prohibited within a mile of the prominent mountain's base.
But with virtually all of the Blackfeet Reservation's 1.5 million acres leased for oil and gas exploration, and renewed interest in development on a tract of land directly adjacent to Glacier National Park's eastern border, Kipp said the stakes are higher today.
At the same time, unemployment among reservation residents hovers around 70 percent and the deal could be a financial windfall for a tribe badly in need of resources.
"It's what you call a conundrum," he said. "And it's hard to put up a defense.
"These are sacred sites, culturally and environmentally," he continued. "They go way back into our cultural history. My brother slept up on that ridge for his vision quest. If you were to drill at a place like Red Blanket, that's an encroachment on God's territory. People and their stories are buried up on that hill, and we go there to contact them. But a very small percentage of Blackfeet people understand that significance today, and even if they did they might not have much concern for protecting it. I'm 66 years old and I don't see many people picking up on the activism we started 40 years ago."
Increasingly, a group of young and informed tribal members have been ramping up efforts to inform the Blackfeet community about the controversial method of oil and gas extraction occurring on the reservation. Known as "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing, the process involves mixing chemicals with millions of gallons of water and forcing the slurry into underground rock formations at high pressure. The fracking process breaks apart rock beds and creates pathways to draw out the oil and gas deposits contained within.
Destini Vaile, a tribal member who has studied the fracking process for several years, opposes full-field development on the reservation. She recently started a Facebook group called the Blackfeet Anti-Fracking Coalition to help disseminate information about the oil and gas development and inform the public.
Falcon, 31, used the site to spread the word about Red Blanket Butte and ultimately halt the operation, which he views as a success. But, he said, it remains important to recognize that development is widespread and affects more than isolated patches of land.
"Just because a well isn't directly on top of a site doesn't mean there is no impact," he said. "They're drilling vertically thousands of feet, and then drilling out horizontally up to 10,000 feet."
The technology is at odds with the requirements and guidelines of the Tribal Historic Protection Office, he said, explaining that companies are allowed to build exploratory wells as long as they are not within 150 feet of culturally significant sites, called "traditional cultural properties," including buffalo jumps, cairns and tepee rings.
Not far from the recently suspended well site is another well called Red Blanket 14-1, which Falcon said is built in an area where stone alignments, burial sites, buffalo jumps and tepee rings have been discovered.
"If I want to take my family to see a tepee ring and there's an oil well standing in the background, that is still going to disrupt the spiritual value of the place," he said.
Other stakeholders are raising questions about what safeguards are in place to protect the land's natural resources as well as its cultural significance.
Anschutz, one of the first companies to lease a large part of the Blackfeet Reservation, recently renewed its interest and is actively looking for oil and gas, having hydraulically fractured its first well in 2010. Unlike other companies with lease rights to reservation lands, however, Anschutz has not conducted a lease-wide environmental assessment, and remains vague about its plans for future development.
Critics, including the National Park Service and National Parks Conservation Association, have said the company's piecemeal approach to environmental assessment is inadequate and complicates the already complex task of measuring cumulative effect -- both to the environment, and to the many culturally significant resources across the reservation. Advocates have called on the company to conduct a cumulative impact statement instead of well-by-well environmental assessments, but to date have not been successful.
"The concerns about culturally significant resources do not begin and end on individual well sites," Michael Jamison, of the NPCA, said. "The real cumulative impact to the tribe's heritage will be felt on the lands in between the well sites, which are ultimately industrialized with pipeline, roads and infrastructure. Decisions such as this one only highlight the need for a broader assessment of the cumulative impact to what is essentially the front door of Glacier National Park."
Anschutz spokesman Brent Temmer said the company works with the proper regulatory agencies throughout the environmental assessment process to mitigate any deleterious effects an operation might present, both to the environment and to cultural resources.
"We go through that same environmental assessment process with every permit to identify concerns," he said. "We want to make sure that we don't infringe on any sacred sites, and in the case of this particular site, because of its sacred significance and the concerned public comment, we suspended the activity."
The area in which Anschutz suspended the project is about 640 acres, Temmer said, but the entire federal exploratory lease is around 50,000 acres. Anschutz said it will continue to work with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office and BIA to investigate other options "to fulfill its mission of evaluating the mineral interests in the area," according to a statement.
Dave Beck, chair of the University of Montana's Native American Studies program, said balancing the tribe's social, economic and cultural interests is tricky to grapple with.
"Fracking has become a very contentious issue for the Blackfeet. The question is how to balance cultural preservation, environmental protection and economic development, and I think that is really what tribes everywhere are trying to deal with right now."