What They Didn’t Tell You About the Public Lands Riders

When Montana Rep. Steve Daines and Sens. John Walsh and Jon Tester were celebrating the public lands package they sneaked into a defense bill, I wonder if they thought about the landowners and taxpayers they threw under the bus by doing it.

Their package transfers valuable coal under my family’s ranch and our neighbors in the Bull Mountains to Great Northern Properties, a mega-corporation spun off from the railroad years ago, in exchange for other coal in southeastern Montana. Great Northern Properties gets a windfall by giving up low-quality coal that will almost certainly never be mined and gains high-quality coal next to mines with a high likelihood of development. It’s like trading a trailer house for a mansion.

If this traded coal is mined, the state and federal government lose royalties and give them to Great Northern Properties instead. While I appreciate the intention to return coal to the Northern Cheyenne that was wrongly taken from them, it shouldn’t be done while lining the pockets of a massive corporation.

By making federal coal in the Bull Mountains private, our delegation has taken significant property rights from Bull Mountain ranchers.

It’s a blatant example of a rich corporation writing a law to give itself a handout. Our delegation should be better than that. Tester, Walsh and Daines chose a massive, out-of-state corporation over the livelihoods and property rights of multi-generational Montana ranching families like mine, and they did so at the cost of tens of millions of dollars for Montana roads and schools.

While the lands package does some good, it also continues a tradition of Montana politicians deciding the western half of our state matters more than the east. The bill designates conservation protections for parts of western Montana, but does so at the expense of polluting other areas.

The bill would open the door to more development along the Musselshell River. It would also expedite oil and gas permitting in eastern Montana communities, where rapid development is already causing concerns over public health and safety.

Who is our delegation to decide that the Musselshell or Tongue Rivers don’t matter as much as the Flathead? Many irrigators depend on that water. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If one river needs protection, then others do too — unless our delegation thinks those waters and the people who depend on them matter less.

For my own part, some of the places this bill might open to strip mining include the springs where I got married and the cabin where we took our kids during the summer. My family’s ashes are scattered there. These lands include Native American cultural sites, elk habitat, and pastures where our community has ranched for generations — land that we hope to keep in agriculture for future generations.

Politicians have ignored rural Montanans for years, and are used to giving pork to big energy companies in the hopes that they will get reelected. But just because this is business as usual doesn’t make me feel any better nor does it make it right.

I’m disappointed that Daines, Tester and Walsh don’t seem to know better.

Steve Charter ranches over coal that would be traded by the public lands proposal, and is the chair of Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council.