US panel: Cancel drilling lease on land sacred to Native Americans near Glacier National Park

A federal panel recommended Monday that the U.S. government cancel a long-suspended drilling lease on land near Montana's Glacier National Park that is considered sacred to Native American tribes.

The recommendation by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation comes as Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Solenex is suing the U.S. government to lift the decades-old suspension on the lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The development would be so damaging to the area "that the Blackfeet Tribe's ability to practice their religious and cultural traditions in this area as a living part of their community life and development would be lost," the council said in its recommendation.

Even the company's plans to reduce the effects of drilling wouldn't be enough to counter the damage that would be done, it said.

The council recommended revoking Solenex's suspended permit to drill, canceling the lease and ensuring that future mineral development does not occur.

The advisory council's recommendation is the first of a multi-step process to either cancel the lease or proceed with drilling. The council analyzed the effects of drilling on the historic and cultural value of the land, and its recommendations will be considered by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which will make the final decision.

John Murray, the Blackfeet tribe's historic preservation officer, called the council's recommendation a landmark decision and said the tribe trusts the Forest Service and BLM will follow the recommendations. He praised the council for recognizing the importance of the Badger-Two Medicine to the Blackfeet.

"It belonged to us and we still think it belongs to us, and consequently we are protecting it," Murray said. "It's like mothers who because of violence or poverty had their children taken away and they're still trying to protect them, still trying to get them back."

Steve Lechner, the attorney representing Solenex, did not immediately return a call for comment.

The project would build one exploratory oil and gas well, 6 miles of new and reconstructed road and a temporary bridge across the Two Medicine River. If the well produces, Solenex could apply for expand the drilling area within its lease.

The company acquired the lease in 1982, but it was suspended in 1993 while federal agencies considered the environmental and cultural impacts. Solenex sued in 2013 to lift the suspension, resulting in a federal judge ordering the government agencies involved to create a timeline to end their review.

The Forest Service will make its recommendations to the BLM by the end of October. The BLM will then decide whether to pursue the path of lifting the suspension or begin the process of canceling the lease outright.