Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended a new national monument at Badger-Two Medicine. While the Blackfeet Nation says the proposal is a good start, they’re also hesitant to fully embrace it before having a say in how the proposed monument is managed.
Huddled behind his white pickup truck near Glacier National Park, Roland Kennerly stuffs his hands into his coat pockets.
“Oh, it's raining, snowing, wind blowing," Kennerly says with a laugh.
The road has turned into a muddy slop winding towards a pocket of socked-in mountains and roadless grassland known as the Badger-Two Medicine area.
"You can only get in there by walking or by horseback, so it keeps it in its natural state," he says. "I hope it stays that way, for my kids and my kids’ kids.”
The place is sacred to Kennerly’s tribe, the Blackfeet Nation.
“A lot of our elders used to go back there and seek their visions, and just go back there for cleansings,” he says.
The Badger-Two Medicine is on U.S. Forest Service land, and for decades, the Blackfeet fought against oil companies who leased sections of that land for exploratory drilling. The last of those leases were retired under the Obama administration, and now President Donald Trump is considering whether or not to take protections a step further.
This summer, his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended the president create a new national monument at Badger-Two Medicine.
That designation would protect a little over 200 square miles of federal land from any future oil and gas development.
While the tribal council supports that, Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes says making Badger-Two Medicine a national monument allows the land to fall under further federal control.
“It takes away from our sovereignty and our rights," he says. "So then we have no say on a place that’s sacred and holy to us.”
Ideally, they want the land returned to the tribe but Barnes says that’s unlikely. So the council opposes the designation unless the Interior Department allows them to co-manage the monument.
“Then we sit at the table and we help make decisions going forward,” Barnes says.
Allowing co-management would take an act of congress and that may happen under the Trump administration.
Zinke has called on congress to authorize tribal co-management of Bear's Ears National Monument in Utah, and Barnes says Zinke asked the Blackfeet to draft a co-management plan for Badger-Two Medicine.
"It would take some legislative change to allow that co-management," Barnes says. "I feel positive that it's going to get the designation. I feel semi-positive that we're going to be able to effectuate a co-management."
Other conservation groups are wary of what a Trump-era national monument designation could mean for Badger-Two Medicine.
Since becoming secretary, Zinke has reduced the size of other large monuments across the country, potentially opening up millions of acres of public land to oil and gas development.
“We want permanent protection for that area," says Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "Making it a monument now that the Antiquities Act is being called into question, are you really going to be able to protect that in perpetuity?”
Zinke says shrinking some large monuments allows them to better align with the Antiquities Act, which states the size of monuments should be limited to the area around the artifacts they protect.
But Tawney says by proposing a new monument at Badger-Two Medicine and not recommending any changes to to another monument in Montana, Zinke may be giving favor to his home state.
“I think the people of Montana hold our special places very near and dear, and if you do not protect those places I think it’s a political nightmare for you in this state,” he says.
Blackfeet tribal chairman Harry Barnes says it doesn’t really matter if Zinke is favoring his home state or not. He’s just happy to have someone in Trump’s cabinet who listens to the tribe’s concerns:
“If we can get a friend in there who can do us a solid now and again, great," he says. "Because it’s something we don’t normally see, and we don’t normally operate in that realm. Ours is in the realm of hoping, praying, wishing. Just like the song, isn’t there a song? Wishing, and hoping… Anyway, that’s what Indian people do. But those wishes and hopes and dreams are generally dashed bureaucracy that really doesn’t care. So that’s the realm we operate in.”
In an email to YPR, A spokesperson for Zinke says there’s nothing new to report on the monument review, and the secretary has yet to comment publically on the proposed new monument at Badger-Two Medicine.