First steps in a long journey

In late 1971, several months before a small group of people formed Northern Plains, some of those same people embarked on an ambitious project – a trip to Washington, DC, to lobby Congress to enact a coal mine reclamation law. It would be their first big step on a long journey.

In what would later become an affiliate of Northern Plains, these folks had formed the Bull Mountain Landowners Association (now known as Bull Mountain Land Alliance or BMLA) to protect themselves from “land men” – coal speculators who used deceitful tactics to manipulate people into selling the right to mine their land.

BMLA members Anne Charter and her late husband Boyd had already been lied to by coal men. They wondered… what was going to happen to Montana – our land and air and water, our ranching communities, our way of life – if we allow the coal companies to strip mine our state?

“At that point,” Anne recalled in a recorded conversation several years later, “none of us knew how to organize, or anything about it, or what to do… Someone happened to say, ‘Well, they’re having hearings in Washington on strip mine reclamation; somebody ought to go there.’

“So we discussed it at a Bull Mountain meeting. And the men were all immediately SO busy on the ranch they couldn’t possibly get away. But you women can go.”

They chose Anne, along with Vera Beth Johnson, who Anne described as “young, with long black flowing hair, and sparkling eyes,” and Ellen Pfister, who Anne said “does her homework and knows her facts.”

They contacted the committee considering strip mine reclamation and were told the hearing agenda was filled, but that another hearing would be scheduled in about three months. Three months later, they got the same response.

Boyd Charter told Anne that she should contact Montana Senator Lee Metcalf. She called Metcalf ’s office and soon received a commitment that he would get BMLA onto the committee agenda.

Citizens from Black Mesa in the Four Corners area (where Peabody coal was developing a mine on Navajo and Hopi land) were the first to testify. A congressman from Arizona was openly hostile to them, calling them “agitators” and “Communists.”

Then it was BMLA’s turn. “Vera was the first one to get up,” Anne recalled, “and was explaining all about the Bull Mountains.”

The Arizona congressman was distracted, talking to an aide, when Vera Beth asked him loudly, “Representative Steiger, do you know where the Bull Mountains are?’”

After the laughter died down, Anne said, “We had the absolute attention of everybody for the whole time.”

The Arizona congressman came up to Vera Beth afterward and said, “Well, I guess if I was in your position, I’d be out there with a shotgun defending my property.”

After the hearing, the BMLA women were approached by several people who had been working for coal mine reclamation in Washington. They asked the women, “Do you know what you’ve done?” Anne replied, “No. We just did our best.”

And the coal reclamation people told them, “You have just dropped a bomb! Everybody thought that they were going West, they would be entrenched, and [get] everything going before anybody knew what was happening. And you have just come and brought it all out in the open, and they are flabbergasted.”

That hearing – and that chance meeting – began Montanans’ involvement in a national coalition working for effective reclamation law. After Northern Plains formally organized a few months later, more people from Montana got involved and began a multi-year working relationship with citizens from coalfield states around the country.

It took several years’ work but, in 1977, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and Pres. Jimmy Carter signed it into law.

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