MISSOULA – A series of new oil exploration leases on the border of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park has renewed the anger and motivation of those opposed to energy development along the Rocky Mountain Front.
The leases were found recently among records held by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. They include nine lease blocks, two of which include a portion of Chief Mountain – the square-shaped landmark mountain along the eastern border of the national park.
“We’re still kind of in shock, wondering what’s going to happen on one of our most sacred sites on the reservation,” said Pauline Matt of Browning, who organized last year’s Chief Mountain Water Walk protest against oil exploration on the reservation.
The lease documents, dated from May, listed Nations Energy LLC as the holder of 6 1/4 square miles of Blackfeet Indian Reservation land for five years, with permission to drill up to three wells. No applications or plans for actual drilling or environmental analysis were presented.
Glacier National Park spokeswoman Denise Germann said park officials were not aware of the lease agreements and ordinarily would not be informed until actual drilling plans were announced. At that time, she said, the park would participate in any environmental reviews or National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
“We’re always looking at what’s happening along the park boundaries,” Germann said. “When something triggers the NEPA process, we would speak to visual resources, night skies, air quality, water quality, grizzly bear and other wildlife migration issues, invasive plants – those are some of the issues we bring up.”
Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. has conducted much of the oil exploration on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. In March, it announced it was discontinuing its activity after drilling 14 wells. The company maintains leaseholds on about 600,000 acres in the western third of the reservation bordering Glacier Park.
The latest set of exploration leases renews debate and tension between park officials and drilling foes with tribal leaders resistant to federal intrusion into activities on reservation lands and hoping an oil boom can reduce unemployment and poverty. Not much oil has been produced in the last three years, but dozens of wells have been drilled on the reservation, which contains nearly 2,400 square miles – an area about the size of Delaware.