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Montana sacred site enters energy debate

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The search for new energy sources by the Bush administration includes tribal sacred sites that bring out criticism from many people and organizations.

The most recent look at oil reserves in Montana by Interior officials contain sacred sites in the area known as the Valley of Chiefs. Harsh criticism comes from tribal leaders, preservationists, environmentalists and some members of Congress.

Valley of the Chiefs is just southwest of Billings and is known for rock art and historic and cultural sites. Now the ranking democrat on the House Resources Committee is voicing his concern and introduced a bill to protect the site from further drilling.

"The debate over what constitutes a responsible energy policy is a welcomed one," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and vice chairman of the House Resources Committee. "It offers many prospects and promises for not only the present but future generations of Americans. Unfortunately, there are those who are seizing this issue as a means to advance corporate rather then the public interest."

In February, the Bureau of Land Management approved a request by the Anschutz Corp. to drill an exploratory well in the region. Called Weatherman Draw by the BLM, the site encompasses approximately 4,268 acres and includes numerous significant rock drawings. Since the 1920s, the area has been recognized and studied for its wealth of important American Indian rock art and sacred sites.

In 1999, the bureau even designated Weatherman Draw as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern." As part of this designation, the bureau provided that locatable minerals would be withdrawn from entry and that "the area would be closed to geophysical exploration for oil and gas."

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While the bureau issued this policy, it is still honoring two leases by the Anschutz Corp. in Los Angeles, Calif.

The leases originally were signed in the mid-1980s for a period of 10 years. However, rather than allow the leases to expire at the end of their terms in 1995 and 1997, the bureau in effect extended them by "suspending" the leases. While the bureau has acknowledged that adverse impacts within the area will be "significant," and that those impacts "could not be mitigated" if oil and gas development occurs, an appeal submitted by affected tribes was dismissed.

"Those opposed have the right to appeal this decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals," Rahall said. "Even so, come June 21st, the company can proceed with its plans."

Of the 4,268 acres in the Valley of the Chiefs, only a third have been inventoried for cultural resources. On the land inventoried, approximately 79 archaeological sites were discovered, including a variety of rock art panels. The area has also been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under three different criteria of significance, with 52 of the 79 sites identified as eligible.

After withdrawing a request to explore and develop oil and gas, the Anschutz Corp. submitted a new permit application in 2000 for one exploration well and an access route. Anschutz has an estimated worth of $15.5 billion. Investments include oil, telecommunications, sports, the Internet and movie theaters.

The bill, introduced by Rahall in early June, is called the Valley of the Chiefs Native American Sacred Site Preservation Act. If passed, the legislation would place the area off limits to mineral development and prohibit the issuance of any new oil and gas drilling permits.

"Must we squander our heritage to quench this seemingly insatiable thirst for oil at any and all costs," Rahall asked. "I maintain we have a trust responsibility here."