BROWNING, Mont. - Blackfeet tribal member Keith Tatsey says the wild, wind-swept lands of the nearby Badger-Two Medicine area refresh his soul. But that's not the only reason he's working to protect this sacred place from further development.
"My entire family from my grandparents on down have ties up there," said Tatsey, a rancher and former rodeo rider who teaches in the natural resources program at Blackfeet Community College in Browning. "We've got to save these areas for the next generation. Otherwise, they won't be there."
Sitting just south of Glacier National Park and wedged against the flanks of the Great Bear and Bob Marshall wilderness areas, the Badger-Two Medicine faces many threats. High on the list, especially in light of the Bush administration's push for increased domestic energy production, is oil and gas development. Expanded and largely uncontrolled off-road vehicle use is scarring the land at an alarming rate, and too much livestock grazing is damaging vital habitat for elk and other species, Tatsey contends.
"The elk, the game, is moving out of there," he says of the mountainous block of land named after the nearby Badger and Two Medicine rivers. "I think they should get the cattle out of there, get the four-wheelers out of there. They should only allow people to have horses and be on foot. There also shouldn't be oil and gas development there or anywhere on the front."
Tatsey's strong stance comes from decades of witnessing continuing degradation throughout the region. The time has come, he says, for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the area, to instate permanent protections for these lands, which also contain a collection of American Indian religious sites. The Blackfeet Tribe also retains various treaty rights throughout the Badger-Two Medicine because large portions were formerly included inside their adjacent reservation.
"There were three boundary changes with the reservation line," Tatsey explained. "If you listen to the elders, they say we were never compensated for that."
Tatsey, 43, made his first trip into the Badger-Two Medicine backcountry when he was 10. He hunted deer and elk with his grandparents and other relatives and was immediately taken aback by the land's stark beauty.
"I think I've been there at least once every year since then," he said. "My grandpa used to go in for months. What I remember most from those early times are the water, the rivers. We crossed a lot of rivers. There were always a lot of animals. We'd see goats, but we wouldn't shoot goats or bears."
Tatsey's father died when he was in high school, so back-breaking work on the family ranch, which sits near the prairied eastern edge of the Badger-Two Medicine, was handed down early. The rural Montana lifestyle, fraught with exceedingly tough winters and skimpy growing seasons, naturally led the young Tatsey to rodeoing.
He says he rode bulls, saddle and bareback broncs before sustaining a serious back injury that forced him to quit the roughstock. Tatsey still ropes in competitions, though, and his two daughters are barrel racers. His 7-year-old son has already taken to riding sheep.
Tatsey earned associate's degrees in Natural Resource Management and Early Childhood Education from Blackfeet Community College and a bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Great Falls. He's now working on a master's degree in Education through Montana State University-Northern.
Spurred by his deep family ties to the area, Tatsey in early 2003 agreed to chair a tribal committee charged with adopting recommendations for the future management of the Badger-Two Medicine. The committee is composed of Blackfeet fish and wildlife managers, water resource personnel, other interested parties, "and any elder that wants to be involved." The tribal plan is being developed as the Lewis and Clark National Forest rewrites its travel management guidelines for its Rocky Mountain Ranger District, which also includes the Badger-Two Medicine and the nearby Rocky Mountain Front, which is also rich in untapped oil and gas resources.
In the past, Tatsey said, relations between the Forest Service and the Blackfeet Tribe have often been strained. Much of the rub, he contends, has been a lack of consultation about management decisions, especially in the Badger-Two Medicine. One of the latest affronts came in 1995, when increased grazing was allowed in the area.
"The Forest Service never really met with the tribe over that," Tatsey said.
But communication seems to be better these days, he says, and tribal leaders are confident their concerns are being taken seriously by the federal agency.
"The response has been good so far," he said. "We've been working pretty well together. I think we're at a good starting point, and I think there's going to be a lot more involvement from the tribe. And there needs to be, too."
Water quality is a main focus, especially considering that many reservation streams have their headwaters in the rugged Badger-Two Medicine. At this point the tribal committee, which has also been working with state conservation groups, is recommending no new roads and no new all-terrain vehicle trails in the area. The tribe also wants more lands surrounding sacred sites protected, grazing to be reduced and commercial logging to be curtailed.
"They want what the tribe wants," he says of the non-tribal conservationists. "We have pretty much the same idea - conservation management. It's something of interest to me, and it's something a lot of people believe in."
Tatsey said tribal and non-tribal use of the Badger-Two Medicine, most of which was declared eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, has been increasing over the years.
"But I think the use will decrease if the management is changed," he added.
Mike Munoz, the national forest's district ranger for the area, says it is now up to the tribe to formally request that a "traditional culture district" be created by enrolling the lands on the national registry. That designation, he explained, will "influence future decisions regarding oil and gas."
According to Munoz, one lease has already been issued to the ChevronTexaco Corp. for work on Goat Mountain, which sits in the heart of the Badger-Two Medicine. Another application to drill, formerly held by the Fina Oil and Chemical Company, has been transferred to Louisiana resident Sidney Longwell. That application is currently undergoing additional review by the Forest Service.
Tatsey said he hopes the tribe's proposed protections can be put into place before more harm is done to the land.
"The tribal traditionalists have long supported full protection for the Badger-Two Medicine," he said. "Hopefully the next generation will benefit from this."