On Wednesday the US Department of the Interior settled with Devon Energy to cancel its oil and gas lease on sacred sites bordering the land of the Blackfoot tribe.
The US Department of the Interior and its charges, namely the Bureau of Land Management, have come under fire in recent years and months for their leasing of massive amounts of public land to oil and gas interests. The Department’s leasing program is so massive that wildlife and US citizens alike have been targeted by its expansion. The program has led to the leasing of 564 million acres of BLM-managed lands, national forests, and other publicly-owned federally-managed lands. Each lease, which are sold for pennies on the dollar, grants the fossil fuel companies that purchase it the ability to construct fracking wells or other permanent structures used in resource extraction that create impacts that greatly outlast the leases themselves. This irresponsible use of public lands has generated conflicts for years in the Western United States, where most of the BLM-managed lands are located, notably with Native American tribes whose tribal lands are often threatened by BLM-sanctioned exploitation.
In what will no doubt bring great relief to the Niitsitapi Tribe, more commonly known as the Blackfoots, the US Department of the Interior moved to broker an agreement with Devon Energy, which cancelled its lease on lands held sacred to the tribe that border its Montana reservation. The liberated lands, known as Badger-Two Medicine, are part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Northwestern Montana, 130,000 acres of which border directly on Blackfoot land. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that the lease’s cancellation would protect the area’s “rich cultural and natural resources and recognizes the irreparable impacts that oil and gas development would have on them.” Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) also praised the move saying that “This region carries great cultural and historical significance to the Blackfeet Tribe and today’s announcement will ensure that the Badger-Two Medicine will remain pristine for both the Tribe and the folks who love to hunt, hike, and fish near Glacier Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.”
The Obama administration has been trying to play nice with native tribes prior to Trump’s assumption of the presidency in January. Two months ago in September, the government decided to pay 17 different Native American tribes nearly $500 million for the mismanagement of tribal lands by federal agencies. This settlement and the more recent one have come at a time when native tribes have come together to support the Standing Rock Sioux, who have been protesting oil and gas interests on their sacred land that pose a threat to their only water supply. The Dakota Access pipeline has bulldozed sites sacred to the Sioux and overtaken land that was ceded to the Sioux by federal treaties in their attempts to construct a 1,172 mile pipeline project valued at $3.8 billion.
Though this land meets the same requirements of cultural significance as the recently-protected Montana area, the federal government has taken no action to cancel the leases in North Dakota and have only announced temporary and voluntary delays in the pipeline’s construction to allow discussions with the Sioux. However, these discussions between the Sioux and the government are largely aimed at convincing the Sioux to accept the infringement that the pipeline represents. The government’s disparate treatment of individual tribes is troubling. Though it is worth celebrating that the Dakota Access protests will not repeat themselves in Montana, the situation in North Dakota and the government’s ignorance of the Sioux’s situation highlights the Obama administration’s hypocrisy on environmental issues and indigenous rights.
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