ALONG THE TONGUE RIVER, Montana — A short distance from Mark Fix’s weathered ranch house on the Tongue River in southeastern Montana, a wide overgrown trench cuts through part of his property. Dating to the 1920s, it’s a relic of a long-ago plan to construct a railroad along the river, an effort that foundered on the shoals of the Great Depression.
Nearly a century later, that railway dream has been revived, in order to link a proposed, and very controversial, coal mine south of Fix’s ranch to a main rail line to the north. The prospect of the new mine and railroad is one of the sparks igniting a bitter fight over exporting coal, to China and other Asian nations, that spreads from the ranch country here all the way to Washington and Oregon, where three new coal export facilities — the first on the U.S. West Coast — have been proposed.
The stakes in this fight are huge, not just for local community concerns centered on traffic disruptions from increased coal traffic and possible health impacts, but for the U.S. as a whole and its commitment to fighting climate change.
As Fix said about a prospective surge in coal exports to Asia during a recent tour of his ranch, “It makes absolutely no sense. For every ton of coal we send to China they send two tons of CO2 back.”
This region of vast grasslands, rolling hills, buttes and river canyons is rich in history and strife. Home to countless bison and other game, it drew competing fur trappers and traders in the 1830s. A generation later, Native American tribes — Cheyenne and Lakota — fought tenaciously to maintain their homeland against the incursions of white settlers moving west on the Bozeman Trail. Led by storied chiefs and warriors, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Lakota fought the U.S. Army in the 1870s, culminating in the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 that included their victory over General George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn before their ultimate defeat and forced exodus.
In the 1970s, ranchers in this corner of the Powder River Basin and to the west in the Bull Mountains banded together in revolt against a plan by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and electric utilities to build 42 coal-fired power plants in the Northern Plains, half of them in Montana. That North Central Power Study would have used half the flow of the mighty Yellowstone River for power plant cooling, plus huge amounts of water critical to ranching from other rivers like the Tongue.
Those ranchers founded the Northern Plains Resource Council to defend local agricultural economies, and they played a key role in winning state and federal laws regulating strip mining and in defeating most of the proposed power plants. The only facility that was constructed in Montana was the giant Colstrip Power Plant, still going full blast with a capacity of more than 2,000 megawatts about 40 miles southwest of Fix’s ranch. Even so, today the Powder River Basin supplies more than 40 percent of the nation’s coal, almost all of it from federal lands. As the Obama administration has promised to aggressively confront climate change with its left hand, with its right it has sold leases to more than two billions tons of federal coal, most of that in the Powder River Basin that alone is responsible for about 13 percent of U.S. carbon pollution.
Now some of those same ranchers, joined by others new to the fight, are again battling the coal industry. With domestic coal-fired electricity on the decline, the industry sees the Powder River Basin’s rich coal reserves and proposed export terminals on the west coast that would ship coal to Asia as the keys to reviving its flagging fortunes. It is fast becoming an epic confrontation, stretching from the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest, with activists in ranching communities, small towns and large cities uniting to defend against local impacts as small as traffic jams and global effects as monumental as climate change.
It begins here, along the Tongue River, and Fix, a former chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, is in the thick of it. His family hails from Colorado but moved to far eastern Montana where his father had a small business contract-harvesting wheat. Fix is a mechanical engineer by training, and worked for Boeing in the Northwest on 757 and 767 jets, and in the plains states on Minuteman ballistic missile batteries. For the past two decades he’s been raising black angus cattle along the Tongue, which flows north out of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming 265 miles to its confluence with the Yellowstone River in Miles City, Montana about a half hour north of Fix’s ranch.
The Tongue is the lifeblood of Fix’s ranch. He owns water rights to 750 acre feet of water a year, which is essential to growing the alfalfa that feeds his cattle in the winter, as well as to the barley and wheat he raises for market. Water quality is a key concern, and he and other ranchers have fought with upstream coal bed methane developers in Wyoming whose wastewater that is a byproduct of drilling for gas is high in salinity and if carelessly handled can degrade the Tongue.
But revived plans for a Tongue River Railroad are his biggest current threat. Various iterations date to the mid-1980s, but now the federal Surface Transportation Board is overseeing a new environmental impact statement on the latest version, a roughly 80-mile route from the proposed Otter Creek Mine near Ashland, Montana to the Miles City area. Two of the possible alternative routes for the railroad would bisect Fix’s ranch.
The Otter Creek Mine would be built by Arch Coal and produce about 20 million tons of coal a year. Arch successfully bid on the state coal lease at Otter Creek in 2010, giving it the right to mine 8,300 acres, and bringing its holdings in the area to 1.5 billion tons of coal. Among other things, the Otter Creek Mine would be a glaring environmental irony. The state of Montana was given the land by the federal government as compensation for the loss of jobs and income stemming from an environmental victory announced by President Bill Clinton in 1996 which killed a proposed gold mine just outside Yellowstone National Park.
Arch Coal, co-owner of the Tongue River Railroad along with railroad giant BNSF (owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway) and Forrest Mars Jr., the billionaire scion of the Mars candy empire, has made no secret of its intent to export the Otter Creek Coal. Chairman and CEO Steven F. Leer said at the time that the acquisition of those Powder River Basin reserves would help the company meet U.S. demand as well as “supply additional coal for expert to emerging Asia.”
As he gives a tour of his ranch, Fix describes a series of parochial concerns about the railroad’s potential impacts, beginning with the company’s ability to take some of his land by eminent domain for the right of way. The threat of range fires, always serious, would increase with train traffic and the sparks it generates. Ground disturbance during construction would invite hard to eradicate invasive plants like leafy spurge and spotted knapweed. The rail line would create a wall between the river and part of his land, blocking cows from water, reducing the size of his calving pasture and potentially trapping his cattle in a floodplain during spring runoff.
And then, Fix adds, is the climate dimension. Fix blames climate change for an increase in extreme weather that this year included a ferocious wind event that tore off parts of his ranch house roof and those of several outbuildings, and also sheered off and tore up dozens of majestic cottonwood trees by the river. He worries that worse impacts are on the horizon if the U.S. commits to even more coal mining in his region and sends that coal to be burned in Asian power plants.
About 20 miles southeast of Colstrip, along Rosebud Creek, Wally McRae and his son, Clint McRae, may be even fiercer opponents of the mine and railroad. Their Rocker Six Cattle Company lies in the path of the preferred alternative route for the railroad, which would cross 9 miles of their land.
Wally McRae is an acclaimed cowboy poet who in 1990 was honored with a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. His poem “Things of Intrinsic Worth” is a stirring lament about the toll strip mining for coal takes on treasured landscapes and the ranching way of life. He’s sometimes described as grouchy or cantankerous, but he’s generous with his time and knowledge during a lengthy interview on his son’s deck one recent evening. As the two men talked, they nervously eyed dry lightning flickering in the distance and fretted about a repeat of the complex of wildfires that torched a half million acres of southeast Montana last year and damaged their ranch.
Of the proposed railroad, the elder McRae says, “I’ve been fighting this deal for 30 years. If you let your guard down you end up on the canvas.”
Recalling the North Central Power Study, Clint McRae reiterates an oft-repeated theme from that era. “We’re in eastern Montana and we don’t count,” he says. “This is a sacrifice area for the state and we’re sick of it.”
“The tide has turned against coal,” he adds, and exports are “their only way out.” The coal industry is turning to Asia because “it’s the only market left, they can’t compete.”
The preferred railroad route would block free access between the ranch’s summer and winter pastures. Instead of a bridge with a wide opening that the cattle could easily go under, the railroad has proposed a narrow culvert under the tracks. Wally McRae says cattle are averse to culverts but that the Surface Transportation Board has told him his cattle will learn to go through it. Being instructed by bureaucrats on the nature of cattle is not so amusing to third generation rancher Wallace D. McRae.
That brings to mind the words of the late Montana rancher Boyd Charter, who helped found the Northern Plains Resource Council, when he was approached by a coal company land man seeking to buy his ranch:
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.
In southeast Montana, when it comes to coal exports and the price they would exact, the door is increasingly swinging out.