PRESS RELEASE: Hundreds gather to celebrate 50 years of Northern Plains’ work to strengthen conservation, family agriculture, and rural prosperity

BILLINGS, Mont. – DanWalt Gardens, just north of the Yellowstone River on the southern edge of Billings, was nearing capacity as hundreds of Northern Plains Resource Council members gathered from across the country to honor 50 years of grassroots organizing on June 4. The family agriculture and conservation organization was founded in 1972 by a group of south-central and southeastern Montana farm and ranch families seeking to protect their land and livelihoods from industrial-scale energy development.

At the time, a plan developed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (the North Central Power Study) would have resulted in land destruction, water depletion, air pollution, and a maze of high-tension electricity lines carving up property across eastern Montana. Farming and ranching would have been all but impossible in much of the region.

Through organizing, policy research, and legislative advocacy, these families joined with other Northern Plains members to protect rural communities from this looming threat while building a powerful grassroots organization that has had a significant impact on the state, region, and even the nation.

Today, Northern Plains Resource Council has thirteen affiliates (local chapters) across the state. The organization has honed a model of citizen engagement whereby everyday people are encouraged and supported to stand as community leaders, evaluating the needs and wishes of their locales and developing campaigns to address community concerns.

Melville rancher Paul Hawks was one of Northern Plains’ original staff members in the early 1970s. Years later in the 1990s, he served as the organization’s board chair. Hawks delivered remarks at the event, reflecting on the values that have remained constant throughout the group’s 50 year history.

“We all love this place we call Montana. We are particularly passionate and not afraid to speak up,” said Hawks to a room packed with members and their families of all ages. “We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward for future generations. The generations to follow are going to live on this land after we’re gone, and we must sustain the resources that will sustain them.”

Northern Plains members danced, dined, and reminisced throughout the evening, reflecting on the relationships and rewards of working together to create change in Montana. A few highlights of the group’s work include:

  • Leading efforts to pass the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to protect ranchers and other landowners from harmful impacts of mining pollution and land destruction

  • Counseling over 1,500 family farmers and ranchers faced with losing their land and homes during the farm crisis of the 1980s to help them protect their assets

  • Negotiating the Good Neighbor Agreement, a legally binding contract between the Stillwater Mining Company, Northern Plains, and local community groups in Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties that protects local watersheds and quality of life (and has remained intact for over 22 years)

  • Preventing proposed “mega-landfills” in three eastern Montana communities that would have received trainloads of garbage from across the United States

  • Enacting the state’s first radioactive waste disposal rules, protecting Montana’s ranchers and rural communities from toxic pollution

  • Passing Commercial Property Assessed Capital Enhancements (C-PACE) legislation in 2021, which allows farmers, ranchers, and small business owners to access private lending to make money-saving energy upgrades to their properties

  • Leading the national movement to restore competition to a monopolized cattle market system driving family ranchers out of business

The evening’s food was provided by the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub, a collective of area farmers and ranchers started by Northern Plains to provide locally-raised food to consumers. As members sat alongside brightly colored flower beds while raising toasts and dining on hamburgers made from beef raised only miles away, the sense of community, connection, and shared purpose was unmistakable.

 “Northern Plains was built upon the western ranching tradition of ‘neighboring’ … that our responsibility to our neighbor and the larger community does not stop at our fence lines,” Hawks said toward the conclusion of his speech. “We look out for each other’s interests for mutual benefit. That makes for good ‘community.’ And that is our strength.”

To learn more about Northern Plains’ 50-year history of grassroots organizing in Montana, visit NorthernPlains.org/HistoryProject.

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