BILLINGS, Mont. – The Northern Plains Resource Council recently held its 51st Annual Meeting in Billings and covered a wide range of topics addressing agriculture, natural resources, and rural economies. The theme of the meeting was “Bringing Democracy Home” in celebration of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Montana Constitution. The landmark document was ratified 50 years ago in 1972, the same year that Northern Plains Resource Council was founded.
The event had two keynote speakers, the first of which was John Boyd, Jr., President of the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd has spent decades advocating for minority agriculture producers and policies that benefit family farmers and ranchers across the nation. Boyd relayed personal stories about his family’s farming history while encouraging independent farmers and ranchers to work together to restore competition and fair practices within an agriculture sector increasingly dominated by a small number of multinational corporations.
Boyd’s keynote was followed by a session that further explored the issue of corporate consolidation with a closer focus on the beef industry. The panel featured Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), alongside Northern Plains ranching members Jeanie Alderson of Birney and Gilles Stockton of Grass Range.
The panelists described the impacts to rural economies – including a 40% reduction in family ranches since the 1980s – due to monopoly trade practices by the “big four” meatpackers: Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef. Panelists advocated for enforcement and reforms to the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act as key strategies to revive fairness and completion in the beef industry. The speakers also expressed their support for the bipartisan American Beef Labeling Act to restore mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef, describing how prices paid to ranchers have diminished steadily since the repeal of COOL in 2015.
Another session explored the future of mining for precious metals within a changing energy landscape. Experts noted the challenges this type of mining presents with respect to protecting land, water, and the communities closest to the work. The session was informed by the organization’s history establishing the Good Neighbor Agreement, a legally-binding contract between Northern Plains, its local community affiliates, and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mine. The groundbreaking legal agreement has been sustained for over 20 years, protecting the water quality of Montana’s East Boulder and Stillwater rivers while ensuring local residents are involved in the mine’s decision-making processes.
Five decades of women’s leadership within Northern Plains’ history was the subject of another panel discussion. Teresa Erickson, the organization’s executive director from 1986-2019, joined the aforementioned Jeanie Alderson and current Northern Plains chair, Joanie Kresich from Livingston. The panelists recounted stories of women leading organizational campaigns, testifying in front of the US Congress, and, in many cases, going on to serve in the Montana Legislature and other noteworthy offices. When Erickson was asked what advice she would offer young women regarding the demands required to become a community leader, she simply replied, “I would tell them it’s worth it.”
The event ended with the second keynote speaker, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson. Nelson’s talk celebrated the expansive freedoms guaranteed by the 1972 Montana Constitution, describing how the document was drafted by regular citizens from all walks of life rather than politicians. Nelson noted that the state constitution guarantees numerous rights beyond those provided in the US Constitution.
Nelson emphasized a right to know what our government is doing and a right to participate in the decisions it makes as essential additions to the Constitution in 1972. The speech also focused on growing concerns that special interests may seek to dismantle the document’s protections if Montanans are not vigilant in defending our constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms.
In addition to showcasing a wide array of speakers and panelists, Northern Plains members also discussed and adopted new policy resolutions and elected officers for the coming year.