A rare development took shape this week in the ongoing debate over oil and gas drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine. Following termination earlier this summer of consultations over the potential historic and cultural impacts of an exploratory well, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation announced it will hold a public hearing in Choteau Sept. 2 to gather comment as required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
It's not often the ACHP makes a house call of this sort. Communications Coordinator Bruce Milhans says that while there are roughly 100,000 Section 106 cases a year, the ACHP only becomes actively involved in about 800 to 1,000 of those. Field hearings like the one planned in Choteau are even less common, Milhans continues, occurring only once every 18 months to two years on average.
"This is an unusually complicated case," Milhans says of the Badger-Two Medicine, "because of the issue involved and the timelines involved."
The meeting offers Blackfeet tribal members and other interested parties another shot at weighing in on the cultural aspects of Solenex LLC's controversial drilling proposal. Some of the groups supporting the tribe's efforts to halt such development had hoped the ACHP would hold its hearing in Browning, making it easier for people with families, jobs or transportation challenges to attend. Not only were those hopes dashed, says the Montana Wilderness Association's Casey Perkins, but the timing of the hearing3 to 6 p.m.and the fact that people have to submit names in advance for a spot in the comment queue may prove additionally restrictive.
"It seems like they've really limited the opportunity to hear from the general public, many of whom have deep, deep ties to the Badger-Two Medicine and care deeply about this project," Perkins says, adding that her organization may help facilitate transport from Browning.
Milhans says Browning was ruled out due to concerns over proximity to one of the affected parties in the case. The ACHP discussed having the meeting in Great Falls, he adds, but finally settled on Choteau as a "neutral corner."
"This just seemed to be the best choice," Milhans says. "It was the most appropriate. There's probably no perfect place, but it seemed right all factors considered."
The five-member ACHP panel visiting Montana next month will not be conducting a site visit to the Badger-Two Medicine. Milhans attributes the decision to the panel members' schedules and the remoteness of the area. The option of a flyover was abandoned due to possible safety issues with wildfire smoke and questions over whether such a flight would be helpful.
The ACHP's Aug. 17 announcement came the same day the U.S. Forest Service filed a court-mandated timeline for its own consideration of Solenex's proposal. The Section 106 case is one component of that broader Forest Service process. According to the new timeline, the Forest Service intends to determine by Nov. 30 whether to lift the suspension of Solenex's lease or pursue lease cancellation.