A ceremony all too familiar to American Indian tribes — the signing of still another agreement with federal officials — took place Wednesday in the Blackfeet country of Montana. But this time, instead of winding up on the losing end, the tribe enjoyed a welcome reversal of fortune in its long struggle to protect its sacred grounds. With Blackfeet leaders in ceremonial headdress, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell canceled 15 energy exploration leases in the Badger-Two Medicine Area along the majestic Rocky Mountain Front, halting the feared desecration of lands at the heart of the tribe’s creation story.
Tribal history warned of usurpers: “If they gain a footing here, trouble for you will follow.” The federal order denies any future foothold to Devon Energy, the leaseholder, which did not challenge the administration’s finding that the necessary environmental reviews had never been completed and that the tribe was never properly consulted. The decision is also in keeping with the Obama administration’s broader pledge when it came to power to take a more measured and protective approach to energy exploration on public lands.
Originally, President Ronald Reagan’s administration authorized 47 oil and gas drilling leases in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two region within the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Years of protest followed from the tribe, from conservationists and from senior officials in the federal Forest Service — all deeply concerned about the threats the leases posed to the region’s environmental and cultural values.
Congress barred further leasing in 2006 and offered tax incentives for companies that surrendered their leases. In time, most of them did. “There are times and places where the right thing is to take a step away,” a Devon Energy official said in accepting a $200,000 refund on the returned lease.
One holdout remains, Solenex, a Louisiana company. Ms. Jewell canceled its lease in March on grounds that it had been issued in violation of environmental and historic preservation laws. The company has taken the matter to court.
There is much doubt as to whether the incoming Trump administration will share the same sensitivity to environmental and cultural values. And for good reason. Its transition team is dominated by energy executives and lobbyists eager to weaken regulation and widen prospects for their industry on federal lands. It is good that Ms. Jewell has moved as forcefully as she has.