Blackfeet Tribal Council says energy leases on religious site cancelled

David Murray, Great Falls Tribune

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council issued a news release Wednesday stating proposed oil and gas leases near Chief Mountain have been canceled. The mountain, located near the Canadian border and on the boundary between the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park, is considered sacred by many of the Blackfeet people.

“The current proposed leases by Nations Energy, which are the subject of so much misinformation, were canceled on July 24, 2013 due to nonpayment by the company,” the tribal council news release states. “The intention of such leases was to explore an area of the reservation which is at least two miles from Chief Mountain and at least one half mile from the mandated buffer zone.”

The tribal council’s announcement comes three days prior to a planned protest in opposition to oil and gas development at the site. Reports that the council had approved exploration leases at Chief Mountain became public last week after a conservation activist posted lease documents purportedly obtained from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on his web site.

Included within those documents is a resolution signed by council chairman Willie Sharp, Jr. and acting council secretary Roger “Sassy” Running Crane reaffirming a prior resolution from January 3, 2013. The resolution approves the mineral lease development of 4,000 acres of tribal land by Nations Energy, LLC, with three wells to be developed within a five year primary term, the first to be drilled within 18-months of the lease signing.

Publication of these documents prompted a petition drive in opposition to the development, which had gathered more than 2,200 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council’s news release notes that as far back as 1982, nontribal people were prohibited from making incursions into a one mile buffer zone around the base of Chief Mountain, and that this protection was reaffirmed by tribal council action in 1992.

“The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council has always considered Chief Mountain as one of the most sacred sites on the Blackfeet Reservation,” the news release states. “This area was for spiritual use of the Blackfeet people only. This protection continues to this day and nothing has or will disturb this area, including any oil and gas development.”

It continues on to state that even if the agreement with Nations Energy had advanced to the drilling of wells, the tribe would have first had to complete an environmental and cultural resources study to see if the proposed wells would impact any Blackfeet cultural resources.

“However, since the leases no longer exist, this is not an issue,” the news release concludes.

The tribal council goes on reassert its “absolute right to develop its own resources on its own land.”

“The council is clear in its purpose to create a better economic environment for its people who currently suffer some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the United States,” the news release states. “With that responsibility to better the lives of its people, however, comes the absolute mandate to do no harm to the tribe’s cultural sites, traditions and resources, including water. The two duties go hand-in-hand and this council will follow its oath and the Blackfeet Constitution to protect and defend its land and to responsibly develop its many and valuable resources.”