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Mogul Keeps Tribal Site Sacred

History: Anschutz's company rules out drilling for oil in a Montana canyon graced with ancient Indian art.

April 24, 2002|GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Denver-based energy company has given up plans to drill for oil in a Montana canyon decorated with ancient rock art that is sacred to several American Indian tribes and will donate its leases to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The decision by Anschutz Exploration Corp. announced Tuesday ends a yearlong wrangle over Weatherman Draw, an obscure 2-mile-long niche in southern Montana that became an early battleground over President Bush's energy policy in the Western states.

The controversy pitted the interests of a major donor to the Bush campaign, Philip F. Anschutz, against preservation of some of the most prized examples of centuries-old American Indian rock art in the High Plains.

The reclusive billionaire, who is a major stakeholder in Staples Center and the Lakers and Kings professional sports teams in Los Angeles, donated more than $300,000 to Republican causes in the last five years. He was awarded rights to drill in Weatherman Draw, 12 days after the Bush inauguration, after years of delay by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management during the Clinton administration.

"We're happy to get it behind us," said William Miller, vice president of Anschutz Exploration. "It was a cultural resource we learned a lot more about and one that merits some level of protection."

Weatherman Draw hides numerous multicolored depictions of humans, shields and animals, some of which archeologists believe are more than 1,000 years old. The mysterious figures are considered the best-preserved examples of the art form in the High Plains. At least 10 tribes have said they hold the area sacred, and some compare it to the Sistine Chapel.

After Indian tribes and environmental groups protested the drilling plan, an unsuccessful effort was made last year to trade drilling rights in Weatherman Draw for rights of equivalent value on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana.

The agreement reached this week leaves the trust holding the only legal claims to oil exploration in Weatherman Draw. The trust has pledged to let those leases expire, and the land bureau said Tuesday it has no plans to permit any further leases of the 4,268-acre site, about 70 miles southwest of Billings.

"To my knowledge, this is the first time an oil company has donated leases to a nonprofit organization," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which agreed to drop its legal challenge to Anschutz's drilling plan. "The Interior Department is happy, the tribes are happy, Anschutz is happy," Moe said.

A bureau spokesman in Montana said the agency will keep the site off the lease auction block and redraw its land-use plan to prohibit drilling in the area, also known as Valley of the Chiefs.

"We have discretion over what we offer for lease, so through our discretion, we will not lease," said bureau spokesman Greg Albright.

Ten Indian tribes, the Sierra Club and the National Trust had sued the Department of the Interior for its February 2001 decision to grant Anschutz permission to drill. That legal action will be halted, those groups said Tuesday.

"Anything that says they're not going to drill, and that's on paper, is a good thing," said Howard Boggess, an oral historian for the Crow tribe in Montana. "I and the coalition of tribes really appreciate what Anschutz has done. They left without any compensation."

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said in a statement that the decision "exemplifies the successes we are achieving through the process of consultation, cooperation and communication."

Still, one congressional opponent of the drilling effort, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), warned that other battles over Western land remain. "In this case, I deeply appreciate the efforts of all involved, including the oil company, to come to a proper resolution of this dispute," Rahall said in a statement. "But make no mistake about it, there are other Valley of Chiefs out there crying out for a comprehensive approach to this issue rather than causing us to fight on a case-by-case basis."

Although Anschutz Exploration hoped it could find as much as 10 million barrels of oil, the area's energy potential is unproved, making the market value of the leases difficult to gauge. The land bureau had been in the process of assessing the value in anticipation of a possible congressional buyout of the lease but had made no estimates.

Native Americans initially were reluctant to draw attention to the area, slowing the process of protecting it. By the time the bureau began assessing its eligibility for protection as an "area of critical environmental concern" in 1992, two oil exploration leases already had been auctioned to a small company. Anschutz, one of the most active players in oil and gas exploration in the Rocky Mountain region, bought the leases in 1994 and applied for permission to drill a well soon after. The bureau granted the area its protected status in 1999, leaving the Anschutz leases "grandfathered." Overcoming their reticence to bring attention to the site--and hence more visitors--the tribes formed a coalition to fight the permits.

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