WASHINGTON (AP) _ Interior Secretary Gale Norton was pressed Wednesday to reconsider allowing oil drilling in a Montana valley sacred to American Indians. A permit to drill was issued last month to a company owned by a prominent Republican donor.
West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, the top Democrat on the House Resources Committee, questioned Norton during a hearing about a permit issued to Anschutz Exploration Corp. The permit would allow the company to set up an exploratory oil well in Weatherman Draw, a 2 1/2-mile-long valley in south central Montana adorned with prehistoric Indian rock art.
Anschutz Exploration is one of several companies controlled by Philip Anschutz, ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the nation's wealthiest men. Among his holdings are the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and a majority share of stock in telecommunications giant Qwest.
Anschutz also is a major donor to the GOP. His company wrote a $100,000 check to the Republican National Committee in 1999, and he and his wife Nancy have donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of President Bush, Sen. John McCain, and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Norton denied there was any connection between the donations and the decision last month by the Bureau of Land Management to allow the drilling. She said the approval was granted by the bureau's office in Billings, Mont.
``To the best of my knowledge, we found no evidence that there was any communication between Washington, D.C., and the Billings office,'' Norton said.
Rahall asked Norton to use her authority to stop the drilling.
``Exploring for oil in this place has been described as placing an oil rig in the Sistine Chapel,'' Rahall said. ``Are we really that desperate? Are we really that greedy?''
She said she did not know enough about the project to overturn the permit but promised to monitor its progress.
A coalition of Indian tribes and environmental and historical groups pledged Wednesday to stop the drilling in the area that Indians call the Valley of the Chiefs.
Carvings and multicolored drawings of warriors, shields and animals adorn the valley's sandstone slopes and cliffs. The centuries-old drawings are considered among the most significant collections of Indian art on the Northern Plains.
It also is a religious site, said Howard Boggess, historian of the Crow tribe. He said Indians from many tribes _ Crow, Blackfeet, Comanche, Apache, Navajo and Sioux _ have come to the valley for centuries on ``vision quests.''
Anita Canovas, a lawyer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said her group was joining the Sierra Club in asking the Interior Board of Land Appeals to overturn the permit.
Weatherman Draw is in a 4,268-acre parcel that the BLM designated two years ago as an ``area of critical environmental concern'' because of the cultural value of the rock art to the Indians. The leases held by Anschutz precede the designation by five years.
The parcel where Anschutz plans to drill has the potential to produce 10 million barrels, company vice president Bill Miller said, but he acknowledged there is only a one-in-seven chance of drilling a productive well.
Drilling could begin as soon as July 21.
The permit only allows for an exploratory well. If Anschutz were to set up a production well, it would require a new permit from BLM, which would conduct an environmental review first.