- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - John Murray, tribal historic preservation officer for the Blackfeet Tribe, opposes oil and gas exploration in Badger-Two Medicine in Lewis and Clark National Forest, a wild area of Montana that’s home to grizzly bears and a place of worship for Blackfeet.

Sidney Longwell of Louisiana has held a permit to drill for natural gas in the Badger-Two Medicine for 21 years, but his efforts have been blocked. He contends he’s being unfairly treated by the government in not being allowed to proceed after decades of delay.

The two men and others with a stake in what’s known as the Hall Creek oil and gas exploration lease met face-to-face Thursday in Great Falls at a meeting called to work out their differences.

The Great Falls Tribune reports (http://gftrib.com/1mMzYdM ) that at the conclusion of the four-and-a-half-hour meeting, Longwell and Murray, the central figures, shook hands, but they could find little common ground, with Murray speaking of the ethereal qualities of the area, frustrating Longwell, who sought on-the-ground solutions to bridge the divide.

“What do you want to do?” Murray said at one point.

“I want to be able to go in and drill,” Longwell said.

“And that’s where we’re at an impasse,” Murray said.

Can exploration occur in a way that does not harm the spiritual and cultural practices of the Blackfeet Tribe?

Longwell thinks it can. Not Murray.

Natural gas development on federal lands and revenue it raises for the public purse, protecting an environmentally sensitive area in the process, the government’s lengthy review procedures and the spiritual practices of the Blackfeet are part of the discussion in the energy-versus-environment debate.

Longwell’s fight isn’t directly with Murray, but rather the U.S. Forest Service, which called the meeting and manages the surface where the lease sits. Badger-Two Medicine is designated as a Traditional Cultural District, a designation requiring extra review when “undertakings” are proposed, in this case a natural gas exploration well.

The designation was given because of spiritual and cultural significance of the area to the Blackfeet Tribe. As a result, the Forest Service is required by the National Historic Preservation Act to designate consulting parties to discuss limiting potential impacts of development before it makes a final decision on Longwell’s permit.

And Murray, as the tribal historic preservation officer, is a key consulting party. Longwell, as the drilling permit holder, is too.

“We just can’t get off ground zero for either one of us,” Murray said at one point. “It’s not a very nice situation for myself. It’s not the way I like to be, but it’s the way it is.”

“It’s time to get something done,” Longwell said at another, noting several presidents had come and gone since the lease was issued in 1982 and the permit to drill in 1991.

Most of the consulting parties were at the table at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center on Thursday, trying to work something out.

“I would encourage us to at least try to talk to each other,” said Mark Bodily, forest archaeologist and Heritage Program Manager for the Helena and Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Murray says the Badger-Two Medicine is one of the Blackfeet’s last cultural and religious bastions, a place where Blackfeet people find spiritual enlightenment as well as food and medicine.

It is the tribe’s duty, he said, to ensure that the traditional cultural district continues for future generations. Building a well pad and a road into the area would disrupt the area and the “Blackfeet knowledge system,” he said, which he said was difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with the tribe’s ways.

“We want to keep that alive,” he said.

The Forest Serviced has placed a moratorium on new development on federal land along the Rocky Mountain Front, and the government has bought out existing lease holders, but Longwell has held on to his.

On Thursday, he pointed out that the cultural district designation does not prohibit development.

“Let’s please get to mitigation,” said Longwell, noting he traveled 2,100 miles from Louisiana to attend the meeting.

The cultural district first was created in 2002. At the time, it was about 89,000 acres. It was expanded in 2013 to 165,000 acres. The proposed well is located within the expanded district, another point of frustration for Solenex officials.

The well is located between Hall and Box creeks and about a mile-and-a-half from the border from Glacier National Park. Longwell said it could end up being one of the best producing natural gas wells in the Lower 48. A portion of the revenue from the project, he noted, will benefited the federal treasury.

His proposal, he said, involves 20 acres out of 165,000.

“Let the tribe give permission to go ahead,” Longwell said. “We’re ready to honor their religious beliefs. That’s not a problem.”

“But I’d like for them to at least give us some consideration, too,” Longwell said.

“Thirty years is a drop in the bucket on how long we’ve been interconnected with that land,” Murray countered.

Murray said he was not willing to budge on his position that no drilling be allowed in the district, but he said the tribe would support an effort to pay Solenex for its lease, maybe through tax credits, or a trade allowing it to drill some place outside of the district.

Directional drilling was raised as a possible way to lighten the impact, in which the well pad would be moved out of the cultural district.

Longwell’s attorney, Steve Lechner, raised concerns about further delays if that were to occur, and asked what that would do to the project’s timeline.

Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said he couldn’t give a timeline because litigation or other issues could come up.

Consulting parties left the meeting with the goal of coming up a list of potential adverse impacts that might harm the integrity of cultural district. Murray was reluctant to share the nature of the tribe’s spiritual practices, but said he would speak with tribal elders.

Lechner said the company can’t come up with ways to mitigate the impacts on the characteristics of the district if they don’t know what those impacts are.

There’s no deadline to resolve the issue at this point, Bodily said.

Ultimately, it will be up to the consulting parties to decide whether they want to continue talking. And it will be up to the forest chief to make a decision on the permit. At some point, The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation may be asked to assist in the process.


Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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