Yes, there is beauty here on the Blackfeet reservation, but there is also oil, locked away in the tight shale thousands of feet underground. And tribal leaders have decided to tap their land’s buried wealth. The move has divided the tribe while igniting a debate over the promise and perils of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a place where grizzlies roam into backyards and many residents see the land as something living and sacred.
All through the billiard-green mesas leading up to the mountains are signs of the boom. Well pads and water tanks dot the rolling hills. Tractor-trailers loaded with chemicals and drilling machinery kick up contrails of dust along the reservation’s winding gravel roads. And spirelike drilling rigs quietly bore into the ground, silhouetted against mountains with names like Sinopah, Rising Wolf and Chief.
It is an increasingly common sight for tribes across the West and Plains: Tourist spending has gone slack since the recession hit. American Indian casino revenues are stagnating just as tribal gambling faces new competition from online gambling and waves of new casinos. Oil and fracking are new lifelines.
One drilling rig on the Blackfeet reservation generated 49 jobs for tribal members — a substantial feat in a place where unemployment is as high as 70 percent. But as others watched the rigs rise, they wondered whether the tribe was making an irrevocable mistake.
“These are our mountains,” said Cheryl Little Dog, a recently elected member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the reservation’s governing body. “I look at what we have, and I think, why ruin it over an oil rig?”
Oil exploration here began in the 1920s, largely on the plains along the eastern edge of the reservation, but it died off in the early 1980s. Over the last four years, though, new fracking technologies and rising oil prices have lured the drillers back, and farther and farther west, to the mountains that border Glacier National Park.
Oil companies have leased out the drilling rights for a million of the reservation’s 1.5 million acres, land held by the tribe, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They have drilled 30 exploratory wells this year alone, and are already engaged in fracking many of them, pumping a slurry of water, sand and chemicals to crack open underground rock beds to pry out the oil.
“It’ll change the lives of a lot of people,” said Grinnell Day Chief, the tribe’s oil and gas manager. “It’ll be a boost to everybody. There’s talk of a hotel coming up.”
To tribal leaders, oil wealth could be more lucrative and reliable than any casino — a resource whose royalties could transform a reservation scarred by poverty and alcoholism.
Blackfeet elders say they have already collected about $30 million, primarily from three oil companies, the Anschutz Exploration Corporation, the Newfield Exploration Company and Rosetta Resources. The tribe has used signing bonuses to pay off debts from building the Glacier Peaks Casino. It built a tribe-owned grocery to compete with the IGA in Browning, the reservation’s largest town. The tribe’s approximately 16,500 members each got $200 in trickle-down payments from the drilling last year, and the oil companies have donated money to the local basketball team and to buy children toys and jackets last Christmas.
For some on the reservation, the drills cannot come soon enough. In April, T. J. Show, then the chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, told a House committee that the layers of oversight and paperwork needed to drill into tribal lands were “extremely slow and burdensome.” He told the panel he opposed new federal rules that would clamp down on fracking and chase away oil companies.
To find the opposing view, one needs only to drive five miles west from Browning, past the casino, heading straight toward the mountains, and pull off at the red gate on the right. There, on a recent summer afternoon, over mugs of horsemint tea, Pauline Matt and a handful of Blackfeet women were trying to find a way to persuade the tribal leaders to stop the drilling.
“It threatens everything we are as Blackfeet,” she said.
Other environmental activists around Glacier have raised concerns that the fracking operations, if they continue and expand, could pollute air quality, contaminate sensitive watersheds and tarnish a night almost uncontaminated by man-made lights.
Chas Cartwright, the superintendent of Glacier National Park, has asked for a full-scale environmental review of drilling on the reservation. In a July 31 letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he raised concerns about how drilling might affect grizzly bear populations, air quality and the vistas from mountain perches inside the park.
And the tribe’s environmental office and roads department have already noted damage to the roads, and small chemical and fuel spills.
The divisions within the tribe are more than disputes over the economy and environment — they represent two visions of the land where Blackfeet members have lived for centuries.
Ms. Matt and the women who oppose the fracking speak about the streams and meadows and mountains as if they were family members. They go on vision quests in the mountains. They braid native sweetgrass to burn in prayers and collect berries and herbs for food, medicine and ceremonies.
The drilling companies, the local Bureau of Land Management and tribal officials say there has been no evidence that the fracking has affected the reservation’s water supplies or soured its air. But to opponents, the damage to the land is still being done.
“You see this butterfly, you hear those birds?” asked Crystal LaPlant, as she sat on Ms. Matt’s back porch one evening, the meadows alive with sound. “Once they start drilling, we aren’t going to have those things anymore.”
Ron Crossguns, who works for the Blackfeet tribe’s oil and gas division, has oil leases on his land, a 10-foot cross in his yard, and little patience for that kind of pastoral veneration. He called it “movie Indian” claptrap, divorced from modern realities. Mountains, he said, are just mountains.
“They’re just big rocks, nothing more,” Mr. Crossguns said. “Don’t try to make them into nothing holy. Jesus Christ put them there for animals to feed on, and for people to hunt on.”
And maybe, for people to drill into. Whether the oil companies keep drilling may depend less on the tribe’s attitudes than the raw economics of extracting oil from extremely tight rock formations. The oil companies are still taking samples, analyzing the rocks and trying to figure out whether they can turn a profit.
“The earth is saturated with oil,” Dave Loken, a senior geologist with Anschutz, said at a recent meeting of tribal leaders and oil companies to discuss the future of drilling on the Blackfeet land. “It’s very tough to get the oil out. We’re still working on it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 17, 2012
An article on Thursday about oil drilling on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana misstated the name of a mountain near the reservation. It is the Rising Wolf Mountain, not Running Wolf Mountain.