Good news from the “Backbone of the World”

November 30, 2016

Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation is a place of stark contrasts. The Blackfeet Tribe of Montana is blessed with a proud culture in a stunning location, but plagued with staggering unemployment.

Drive through the town of Browning and you may see local youth riding bareback on horses – but you also may see them skateboarding at a top-quality skatepark funded by rock-and-roller Jeff Ament.

The reservation is not an easy place to grow up. The average life expectancy of a male child on any Montana Indian reservation is a full 20 years less than a child born on the other side of the mountains, the county where I live.

So one might assume that protecting wilderness might be a low priority for the Blackfeet. After all, protecting wilderness is often presented as an elitist view of the privileged, New-England based children of the Transcendental movement.

But if you watch this short film, you see where these world views intersect, at the Badger-Two . The “Badger2” is a 100,000 acres of the Rocky Mountains in northwestern Montana, just east of the Continental Divide.

This month, the Obama Administration announced that it has negotiated the withdrawal of 15 of the remaining 17 oil and gas leases in this portion of the Lewis & Clark National Forest, going a long way toward protecting this breathtaking slice of rugged wildlife habitat. (Resource Media was flattered to be asked to help tribal members and conservationists promote the film, Our Last Refuge in screenings around Montana and in Washington D.C. The full film will be available online later in 2017.)

The leases were issued during the go-go drilling boom of Reagan’s Secretary of Interior James Watt and have been deeply controversial ever since. Conservation groups like the National Parks and Conservation Association, Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society teamed up with the Blackfeet to oppose the leases, joined by sportsmen’s groups like Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

When I hike and fish in the headwaters of Badger Creek and the Two Medicine River, it’s almost unthinkable to spoil it with bulldozers and oil rigs. Both aesthetically and ecologically, it’s identical to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park, which surround it and are recognized as some of the premier, pristine wildlands of the Continental United States.

But for the Blackfeet, the Badger-Two Medicine is something more. They hold deeply valued treaty rights here. It is the source of their genesis stories, a place they have called home for 10,000 years. In harsher times, when they were persecuted for performing their ancient ceremonies, these mountains provided a very real refuge for these traditions. Traditions many carry on today.

To many of tribal members, the leases in the Badger-Two Med reflect a direct line of exploitation ranging from the theft of their ancestral lands to the destruction of the bison herds they depended upon for uncounted generations.

Today, the wild lands of the Badger-Two Medicine are a bit safer. The tribe has also fostered a herd of 500 bison, which they intend allow to roam in to the Badger-Two Medicine, with a vision they will again nourish the tribe and provide a valuable, sustainable natural resource.

The Blackfoot Reservation is not lost in time.  The Badger-Two Med represents a future where the Blackfeet have more authority over their own healthy and prosperous future. It may be a small step in that effort, but it is a step indeed.

Ben Long