BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Even as it clashes with American Indians over reductions to national monuments in the Southwest, the Trump administration is pursuing creation of a new monument on the border of a Montana reservation where tribal officials remain wary of the idea.
The Blackfeet Indian Tribe has long fought oil and gas drilling and other development within the Badger-Two Medicine area — a mountainous expanse bordering Glacier National Park that's sacred to the tribe.
Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes told The Associated Press that protection of that 200-square-mile (518-square-kilometer) area is paramount. He sees a "workable solution" in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's proposal to co-manage the area with the tribe, but stressed that the Blackfeet have never sought a national monument designation for the land.
"We want total return to Blackfeet ownership," Barnes said Saturday, adding that the idea of a monument "has been proffered and advanced by others."
Zinke says he'd seek co-congressional approval for the co-management proposal, part of his recommendation to create national monuments at Badger-Two Medicine and two other sites — a Civil War camp in Kentucky and the Mississippi home of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Barnes cautioned that the tribe would be unwilling to surrender treaty rights dating to the 1800s that let its members hunt, fish and gather timber from the Badger-Two Medicine.
"The Blackfeet Tribe's interest has always been protection of the Badger-Two Medicine," Barnes said in an emailed response to questions from The AP. "We have fought a long time and we see it not being over yet."
The Badger Two-Medicine has deep cultural significance for the Blackfeet as the site of the tribe's creation story and a place where traditional plants are still gathered for medicinal purposes.
During the brutal winter of 1883-84, when hundreds of tribal members starved to death, others journeyed to the Badger-Two Medicine to hunt. They brought back enough food for their families to survive, said John Murray, the tribe's historic preservation officer.
The land was part of the Blackfeet Reservation until 1896. That's when the tribe sold it and adjacent property that would later become Glacier National Park to the U.S. government for $1.5 million — a deal some tribal members still dispute as illegitimate.
Badger-Two Medicine is now within the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Zinke, a former Montana congressman who grew up around Glacier National Park, recently told reporters that said he recognizes the area's sacred value to the Blackfeet. He described the Badger-Two Medicine as "one of the special places in our country" and deserving of national monument status.
"Here is a virtually untapped area to do it right, to generate income through tourism, a greater understanding of the culture," Zinke said on a conference call to discuss the administration's actions on national monuments.
Informal talks on the Badger-Two Medicine are underway between the Blackfeet and Zinke's office, Barnes said. Still, Barnes said the tribe remains united with a coalition of tribes in American Southwest that have joined with conservationists to fight Trump's reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in Utah.
Barnes said the tribe remains opposed as a "general rule" to a federal monument designation for Badger-Two Medicine. But he added the tribe was working with Zinke in hopes of securing for the Blackfeet a permanent voice in how the land is administered.
The co-management of lands by tribes and government agencies has occurred numerous times elsewhere in the U.S., said Martin Nie, professor of Natural Resource Policy at the University of Montana.
It's typically a way to balance tribal claims on public lands and resources against the federal government's oversight responsibilities, Nie said. One of the most high-profile examples is the management of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, where tribes were given greater involvement under a court order.
In the case of the Badger-Two Medicine, co-management would put the Blackfeet on more equal footing with the U.S. Forest Service, Nie said. In the past, the tribe has been forced to react to actions affecting the land, such as government oil and gas leases issued in the Badger-Two Medicine in the 1980s, against the wishes of many tribal members.
Under co-management, the Blackfeet could have a say in such decisions.
However, Nie noted that Trump's reductions to the two Utah monuments would call into question the permanence of the Antiquities Act —the 1906 law under which presidents designate monuments — if the reductions withstand legal challenges.
Zinke also recommended reductions in Nevada's Gold Butte and Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou monuments and opening other protected land and marine areas to more fishing, logging and other activities.
That should give the Blackfeet pause, Nie suggested.
"Why would the Blackfeet be interested in pursuing a national monument," he asked, "if it can be undone by a successor?"
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