- 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.

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