Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke certainly has a full plate these days. Facing a number of transparency lawsuits and ethics investigations, one of which was recently referred to the Justice Department, Zinke could be forgiven for wanting to avoid any additional time in the courtroom.
But Tuesday, Zinke announced that his agency intends to appeal a recent District Court decision wrongly restoring energy exploration leases in the sacred Badger-Two Medicine. He made the right call. The land should never have been leased to begin with and deserves to be protected from the threat of any future development.
The 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine is enclosed by the borders of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. For thousands of years, the people of the Blackfeet Nation have held it as a sacred place essential to maintaining a connection with their ancestors. Despite its obvious environmental and cultural significance, starting in the early 1980s the federal government allowed oil and gas interests to buy up nearly four dozen leases in the Badger-Two Medicine for a mere $1 an acre.
Eventually, the lack of any site-specific environmental review or cultural consideration led the federal government to stop issuing further leases and to suspend the existing ones. And over the ensuing decades, members of the Blackfeet community, working with conservation groups and Montana’s congressional delegates, succeeded in convincing most of the leaseholders to relinquish their leases voluntarily. There are now only a couple of lingering holdouts.
In 2013, one of them filed a lawsuit arguing that he had been prevented from making use of the lease for an unreasonable length of time. This action succeeded in prodding the Interior Department to finally cancel the last remaining energy exploration leases in the Badger-Two Medicine — but did not put an end to the court battles.
Now, Sydney Longwell of Louisiana and W.A. Moncrief Jr. of Texas are both protesting the cancellation of their leases in court. And in late September, a District Court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in their favor. While Judge Richard Leon did not rule on whether the leases themselves are legal, he did find that the action of canceling them after so much time had passed is unfair to the leaseholders.
The Interior Department faces a Nov. 23 deadline to file a notice of intent to appeal. Montanans should applaud Zinke for making his intentions clear in advance of this important deadline.
Zinke has long been an unequivocal advocate for the Badger-Two Medicine, and in fact, has gone as far as recommending the Badger-Two Medicine for designation as a national monument. This is an excellent idea well worth pursuing, as it would provide much-needed permanent protections to this pristine region. Unfortunately, national monument designation would not preclude the development of the remaining leases, one of which covers 6,000 acres along Two Medicine River.
The Interior Department has solid grounds for an appeal. For starters, the fact that it took the federal government too long to cancel leases that should never have been issued in the first place is not a good reason to keep them from being canceled now. The rules are clear: Site-specific environmental impact studies must be performed before any leases can be issued. Any improperly issued leases should be void.
It’s high time to settle this matter once and for all. The Interior Department must do all it can to provide long overdue assurance to the Blackfeet, to Montanans and to all Americans that the Badger-Two Medicine will be safe from oil and gas exploration, now and forevermore.