A federal land agency on Monday upheld billionaire Philip Anschutz's right to drill an exploratory oil well in an area of south-central Montana where Native American tribes want to preserve sacred rock drawings.
The site, called Weatherman Draw, has become an early flash point for the
Bush-Cheney energy plan, which aims to ease access for oil and natural gas
exploration on public lands.
Environmental groups, preservationists and 10 tribes had appealed a Bureau
of Land Management decision to allow drilling by a company owned by
Anschutz, a major contributor to Republican Party causes who owns the Los
Angeles Kings and who has stakes in the Los Angeles Lakers and Staples
Opponents will now take their case to the U.S. Interior Department, where
they will seek a ban on drilling in the 4,268-acre site, which harbors some
of the best examples of rock drawings in the high plains. They are angered
that the BLM did not weigh effects of an eventual oil field, should the
exploratory well prove fruitful.
The BLM did respond to concerns over vandalism that could occur when
Anschutz improves an abandoned cattle road that leads to within a half-mile
of the site. Anschutz will have to post a security guard and maintain a
locked gate at the road entrance.
"My feeling is, it's putting lipstick on a pig--it's still a pig," said the
Sierra Club's Kirk Koepsel.
There was no immediate comment from the Anschutz Co. or its subsidiary,
Anschutz Exploration Corp., both based in Denver.
After years of regulatory delay, the BLM granted Anschutz permission to
drill less than two weeks after the inauguration of President Bush, whose
party and campaign received more than $300,000 from Anschutz.
The permit won't take effect for 30 days, to allow for the appeal to the
Interior Department, which can issue an additional stay during its 45-day
WEATHERMAN DRAW, MONT.- May 21 - The artists never signed their names, and
for centuries their sandstone gallery remained hidden from all but their
tribal descendants who wandered these windy sagebrush steppes.
That obscurity is about to end, as one of the nation's richest oilmen, who
also is a major contributor to the Republican Party, has been given
permission to search for what he believes could be a pool of 10 million
barrels of oil buried here.
These bluffs 70 miles southwest of Billings, where enigmatic images of
animals and men have weathered as much as 1,000 years of prairie wind, are
quickly becoming the backdrop for the first battle over the Bush-Cheney
Emboldened by the federal plan's emphasis on easing access to domestic
reserves on millions of acres of public land, the oil and gas industry is
eyeing areas like Weatherman Draw in hopes that protracted battles over
wildlife and archeology will be a thing of the past.
Just 12 days after the inauguration of President Bush, federal authorities
here granted an oil exploration permit to billionaire Philip F. Anschutz,
whose empire ranges from telecommunications and railroads to part ownership
of the Lakers and Staples Center, and who donated more than $300,000 to
Republican causes in the past four years.
Affecting an obscure and largely unpopulated 4,268 acres of south-central
Montana, the decision by the Bureau of Land Management turned few heads.
But 10 Native American tribes, the Sierra Club and the National Trust for
Historic Preservation are launching a nationwide campaign to stop the
drilling within a half-mile of indigenous art that qualifies for the
National Register of Historic Places.
They fear that easier access to Weatherman Draw will attract vandalism and
abuse. And losing this battle, they contend, could mark the beginning of a
wholesale rollback of gains achieved in the Clinton administration, which
removed vast stretches of public land from commercial exploitation and
The opponents of drilling have appealed the decision by the BLM, which is
scheduled to issue a ruling today. Both sides have threatened to continue
the battle in the courts, where the case will be closely watched by the
industry and environmental movement.
"I think it really represents what Bush wants to do in the West," said Kirk
Koepsel, northern Plains regional representative for the Sierra Club.
"These are the things the [Vice President Dick] Cheney energy plan has in
mind to do. They both worked for oil companies, and oil companies want to
have access to every acre of federal land in the West."
Oil and gas interests in Montana and the rest of the West now openly talk
of persuading the administration to reverse decisions such as a 1997 Forest
Service ruling that set thousands of acres of the northern Rocky Mountains
off-limits to exploration.
"I think it will help as far as bringing a more balanced approach," Gail
Abercrombie, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Assn., said of the
Bush plan. "It's not going to be tomorrow. I wouldn't even say it would be
a year or two."
For Anschutz Exploration Corp., the BLM permit for Weatherman Draw
represents little more than long overdue relief. "We went through about
four years of permitting, which is about 3.9 years more than a permit
takes," said the company's land manager, Todd Kalstrom.
"We understood this was a sensitive area, and we wanted to work with the
people in the area." But, Kalstrom added, he found the Native American
response "vague and without any clarity."
Kalstrom, in fact, warned the BLM that "Anschutz's patience has ended" in a
letter he sent to the agency in August 1999. Calls to Anschutz Exploration
Corp.'s parent company for comment on the issue were not returned last week.
Application Kept in Limbo
Anschutz acquired two existing leases to mineral rights in 1994, two years
after the BLM began procedures to protect rock art found on the site. It
would take five more years for the BLM to declare Weatherman Draw an "Area
of Critical Environmental Concern," a designation that places substantial
obstacles to drilling.
In the meantime, the BLM kept Anschutz's drilling application in
limbo--even while acknowledging that he had valid rights to drill because
his acquired leases predated the bureau's tighter regulations.
In the end, the BLM drilling permit imposed only minor conditions,
including a ban on disturbing Native American rituals still held in the
area and the protection of mating sage grouses, a prairie species whose
population is rapidly declining as a result of human disturbances.
But the BLM will allow drillers to reopen a long abandoned access road.
Motorized access is the bane of sacred sites and wilderness areas because
it opens them up to thieves, vandals and poachers.
Under the permit, the road could be open and drilling underway as early as
The Native Americans whose oral histories refer to the valley as a place of
peace are enraged. At first reluctant to attract attention to an area they
consider sacred, they have joined a national campaign to save Weatherman
Draw. Drilling here, they say, is like sinking a well in front of the
Vatican or in the midst of religious sites in Jerusalem.
"I was told a story by Yellowface," said Howard Boggess, a Crow oral
historian who showed the site to a reporter. "He said go up the Yellowstone
[River] and follow the Clark [Fork]. There's a valley there that's the
valley of peace. We have no war there."
Boggess is convinced Weatherman Draw is that valley.
It is not an easy place to find on a map, and once located, Weatherman Draw
does not give up its secrets readily. A small change in the light angle can
hide images--of shields, animals and human figures--that stand out boldly
in other conditions. Some images lie in the shadowed under face of
sandstone slabs that lean like scattered dominoes in the sandy soil.
Archeologists--as well as Native American leaders themselves--are largely
baffled at the meaning of the symbols, which they count as some of the best
examples of indigenous rock art on the high Plains, and the only
polychromatic ones in Montana.
"We don't know exactly what it was for, but it was a special place," said
Crow tribe member Burdick Two Leggins, who saw the site for the first time
with a reporter last week.
When the pioneer Weatherman family first passed through in the late 1800s,
they scrawled their family name in several places close to pictographs that
were not revealed to the public until 1992.
But other emblems closer to a paved road have been more widely familiar
since the 1930s, and have suffered extensive damage from gunshots and
graffiti. As a result, enigmatic circles and wedges lie hard by more
prosaic scrawls that say "Bob," "Kikki" or "Lonnie Schwend, May 1963."
Crow and Comanche leaders who trekked to the site recently fumed that the
Anschutz project would open the more hidden sites to similar vandalism.
Anschutz agreed to keep workers from the art sites, but bristled at BLM's
suggestion to post a 24-hour guard during drilling, suggesting that the
cost be shared among the company, tribes and Sierra Club.
'This Is a Living Spiritual Center'
Tribal representatives, meanwhile, cringe at the image of guards and fences
around a sacred site. They say the obscurity afforded by wilderness has
protected the area better than any modern sentinel could.
"This isn't just some place on a hill; this is a living spiritual center.
The church is alive here," said Jimmy Arterberry, a Comanche preservation
leader who traveled to the site from Oklahoma. His tribe, which branched
off from local Shoshone groups, traces its heritage through the valley as
For their part, environmentalists view the BLM permit restrictions as weak
concessions from a bureau eager to satisfy the new Washington philosophy on
"I think what was happening is the BLM sensed a shift in policy and decided
to move forward on this," Koepsel charged.
Tom Lonnie, the BLM's deputy state manager for Montana, who will issue the
appeal decision today, denied any such shift.
"It's a decision that takes a lot of review and a lot of consideration,"
Lonnie said. "It wasn't being stalled by anyone as far as I know. The
change in administration had nothing to do with approval of this well."
Still, the record on the Weatherman Draw case reveals a BLM divided over
its duty to promote profitable use of federal land while protecting its
cultural and wildlife heritage.
For instance, Kalstrom and others close to the decision acknowledged that
his company "worked closely with BLM officials" and "mutually decided" to
tailor the company's original proposal for exploration and production in a
way that would avoid a costly and time-consuming environmental impact review.
As a result, the bureau undertook a less stringent environmental assessment
on a proposal that deliberately avoids the issue of what happens if oil is
That segmentation of the long-term plan for Weatherman Draw means that if
Anschutz finds oil, the real battle may be just beginning.
At best, Anschutz geologists foresee pumping about 10 million barrels over
20 years--an amount equal to about half a day of U.S. consumption,
according to the Department of Energy. If no oil is found, Kalstrom said,
"We walk away."
Opponents don't like the odds. "Once they get going, you can't stop them,"
said Crow activist Two Leggins. "When you're dealing with the sixth richest
man in the country, the amount of influence and power he has is enormous."
Two Leggins and others find it particularly ironic that Philip Anschutz is
an avid collector of Western paintings, currently exhibiting his private
collection of Western art on a nationwide tour. They have appealed to him
to recognize the value of their simple rock images and walk away from
Weatherman Draw. In the meantime, they plan to bring the issue to the
attention of people viewing the exhibits in Chicago, Omaha and Washington,
"This is like a gallery out here, a natural museum," said Two Leggins.
"Michelangelo, they put his art in museums and put a price on it. These
things are priceless."
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