National Sacrifice Area?
The Northern Plains Resource Council was formed by ranch families who were concerned about the threat that industrial-scale coal mining would have on their property and their ability to make a living from ranching.
People in the region who lived above or near coal seams became aware of the North Central Power Study, produced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 21 private and public utility companies, plus electric cooperatives, public power districts, and cities. That study proposed siting 42 coal-burning power plants in the Northern Great Plains, 21 of them in Montana. The plan would have included using 2.6 million acre-feet of water annually from the Yellowstone, Big Horn and Wind, Tongue, Powder, and North Platte Rivers in order to cool all those plants.
The impacts of such a plan – land destruction, depletion of water resources, massive air pollution, a maze of high-tension lines taking electricity from the region – would have been devastating on people trying to earn a living by farming or ranching. It raised the specter of eastern Montana becoming a “national sacrifice area” for energy production. It should have been no surprise that these were the people who rose up against this plan.
Montanans Begin to Organize
The late Boyd Charter, Montana rancher and co-founder of Northern Plains, described his contact with a coal company land man this way:
I told that son-of-a-bitch with a briefcase that I knew he represented one of the biggest coal companies and he was backed by one of the richest industries in the world, but no matter how much money they came up with, they would always be $4.60 short of the price of my ranch. . . . . Some people cannot understand that money is not everything. . . . He must have decided that I was stupid, because he offered me a contract for one dollar entitling him to explore for coal. I had to tell him the door swings out just the way it swings in.
Members of two local rancher groups – the Bull Mountain Landowners Association and Rosebud Protective Association – formed Northern Plains at a meeting in Boyd and Anne Charter’s living room in the Bull Mountains in 1972. Northern Plains’ founders filed articles of incorporation with the Montana Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State filed a certificate of incorporation on September 22, 1972. In October of that year, Northern Plains met under its newly-adopted charter, and elected its first officers and directors.
Coal mining and its impacts were Northern Plains’ primary focus for several years. Much of that work involved getting rural families to talk to one another so they knew what the coal companies were telling people. They came to learn that coal companies relied on a “divide and conquer” strategy, and Northern Plains responded in its first newsletter with a list of “battle tactics” used by coal companies and what individuals could do in response. These tactics included:
- When a coal company shows you a contract, ask them if your land can be reclaimed to its original productivity. What will happen to your springs and subsurface water table? Will they replace wells they ruin? Who will replace your land if the coal company decides simply to forfeit its bond?
- If the coal company knows more about the habits of your lawyer than you do, get another lawyer.
- Don’t talk to them alone… get witnesses to your conversation. If they won’t allow you to have witnesses, tell them to leave.
- If the coal company threatens to condemn your land, don’t panic. You have more rights and power than the coal company wants you to think.
- Understand that coal companies may use a neighbor or acquaintance to soften you up.
- When the coal company tells you of neighbors who have leased, don’t take their word for it… ask your neighbors directly.
- Do not let anyone rush you into signing anything.
- Consider the effects of your actions today on your grandchildren.
Northern Plains member Wally McRae said, “This is my heritage, and the land and livestock are no less important to me than they were to my grandfather. I can assure you that I and others like me will not allow our land to be destroyed merely because it is convenient for the coal company to tear it up.”
Northern Plains proclaimed in a 1974 flyer:
The Council is committed to maintaining a viable agricultural economy, and protecting land upon which agriculture depends, and our way of life, recognizing that all of us draw our livelihood from the land, and that we have an obligation to insure a viable and self-sustaining homeland for future generations.
Citizens Come Together
Through the 1970s, Northern Plains worked with other citizens groups and played a key role in the passage of Montana’s basic environmental protection laws (Major Facility Siting Act, Hard Rock Mining Impact Act, Water Use Act, Strip Mining and Reclamation Act, Coal Conservation Act, Coal Severance Tax Act).
We worked in alliance with citizen organizations from other coalfield states to get Congress to pass – and the President to sign – the federal strip mine law. President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act on August 3, 1977. The US Office of Surface Mining presented Northern Plains a Citizens Award on SMCRA’s 20th anniversary for our work in creating the law and our persistent efforts on coal issues since. Many parts of that law were based on Montana’s strip mine law.
Large-scale coal strip mining indeed came to eastern Montana but on nothing close to the scale projected by the North Central Power Study. Northern Plains sought to find ways to keep family ranching viable even when a coal mine moved into the neighborhood. The mines are still there today, and so are the ranches. This is not something that would have happened by itself.
In 1979, Northern Plains joined forces with two other citizen groups – the Dakota Resource Council in North Dakota and the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming – to form the Western Organization of Resource Councils. Based in Billings, Today, WORC has member groups in seven Western states, and assists those groups by coordinating work on shared issues, providing training, and conducting research on issues.
Since those early days, Northern Plains has worked on a wide variety of issues that affect family agriculture, land, water, air, and our communities.
Fossil fuel development can be so hard on nearby farms and ranches, because it lays heavy burdens on our land, water, and air, and because the effects of fossil fuel development will reach so far into the future. Northern Plains will be involved with these issues for many years to come. All the while, we will continue working to ensure that the voices of individual Montanans can be heard as clearly as those of corporate lobbyists, and that citizens will always be able to make a difference in how we treat our land and water, and in keeping family farming and ranching viable in Montana.