The old adage of never looking a gift horse in the mouth is haunting officials at Montana State University–Billings. To the dismay of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) and other conservation groups, the school is poised to apply for a permit to use a politically tainted cabin that the U.S. Forest Service had slated for removal in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness southwest of Billings.
MWA, The Wilderness Society, and other statewide organizations are firing up an intensive campaign to dissuade the school from using the structure, which was a gift from former state Sen. Bruce Crippen (R–Billings).
Conservationists contend that Montana University System leaders were improperly involved in two recent efforts to sandbag the Forest Service, which said that continued use of the property would violate the 1964 Wilderness Act and the Custer National Forest’s management plan.
The ownership transfer was greased last summer through a congressional “rider” sponsored by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R–Mont.), a close ally of Crippen. Critics say the “personal privilege” sets a national precedent that could open the door for hundreds of other national forest and national park private property owners to seek similar exemptions from federal statutes.
“It just proves that there is this different class of folks that get excluded from following the law,” charges Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies representative for The Wilderness Society. “This is just atrocious.”
Internal documents released by MSU–Billings Chancellor Ron Sexton under the Montana Constitution’s right-to-know provision show that the amendment, quietly attached to the 2002 Interior appropriations bill, was drafted by University System officials and pushed through by MSU-Billings and Crippen’s billings attorney, Tom Ebzery.
Records show a top lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., Van Scoyoc Associates, may have also been paid through the MSU-Billings Foundation to help with the amendment, which underwent no public notice or review. Van Scoyoc lobbyists did not return repeated phone calls from the Independent seeking an explanation of their correspondence with school administrators about the legislation.
Crippen, a veteran lawmaker who served as president of the Montana Senate in the 1999 session, had previously signed Forest Service agreements saying he would give up ownership of the cabin and it would be destroyed by Dec. 31, 2000. The permit to use the structure expired at the end of 1999.
“It is our sincere belief that you and your advisers are seriously misjudging the depth of public alarm at your institution’s collusion in this attack on the Wilderness Act, and hence the ensuing negative influence on your school, students and community,” reads a letter delivered to Sexton’s office last week by MWA leaders. Copies of the letter were also sent to 136 MSU-Billings faculty members and the state Board of Regents.
“If other well-connected politicians, working with the same stealth and disdain for public involvement, succeed in driving even larger vehicles through the opening caused by this precedent, you and MSU-B can expect—absolutely—to share in the responsibility for making it happen,” the letter reads. “Put another way, we feel that an institution engaged in teaching appropriate civic behavior to its students should not engage in inappropriate undemocratic action. By anyone’s measurement, this whole affair does not pass the ‘smell test.’”
“I’m going to be looking into this,” says Dick Crofts, state commissioner for higher education. He adds that he had just been updated on the controversy, which has been simmering behind the scenes for several years.
The small cabin sits on nearly an acre near Sioux Charlie Lake in the Stillwater River drainage, about three miles inside the wilderness boundary. It was constructed by Crippen’s grandfather in the early 1930s. After the wilderness area was created in 1978, the Forest Service said the structure would eventually have to be destroyed to comply with the Wilderness Act.
But records show that Crippen repeatedly fought federal rules and was given what conservationists contend was an illegal, 10-year extension of his use permit by the Forest Service in 1988. Just as the extension was set to expire, Crippen offered the cabin to the University of Montana in Missoula, which turned it down.
“There were a number of reasons,” says Perry Brown, dean of UM’s School of Forestry. “Number one is that it’s in a wilderness area. Because of that, it’s been on the Forest Service list to be taken out. We just put a number of things together and it really didn’t fit our needs.”
Ken Woosley, MSU-Billings’ director of university relations, says Crippen first approached school officials in Billings with the cabin offer in 1999. Because the federal use permit was about to expire, Woosley says the school realized that congressional intervention would be needed for the ownership change to occur.
Documents show that Sexton and Crippen signed an agreement in August of 1999 that would allow Crippen to continue using the cabin for limited personal use for up to 15 years, even though the structure would be owned by the state. The agreement was drawn up by LeRoy Schramm, the University System’s chief counsel, who now denies that he was instrumental in the process.
“To call me a key player is hardly an accurate description,” Schramm says. “I’ve not once spoken for or against this. I have no feeling one way or another about it. I didn’t lobby for it. I was just asked to draw up the documents.”
About the same time, Burns and Sen. Max Baucus (D–Mont.) were asked by the school to sponsor legislation to override the Forest Service. In the meantime, MSU-Billings officials, without consulting the agency, drafted proposals on how the structure might be used as an “educational” facility and a venue for faculty and student retreats.
In late 1999 Custer National Forest officials denied the school’s request for a permit extension on the grounds the cabin was a “non-conforming use in a wilderness area,” even though the Board of Regents had already approved the ownership transfer. Letters from Woosley to Baucus and Burns on MSU-Billings letterhead implored the senators to overrule the Forest Service.
In fact, records show that Schramm was involved in the action and even helped Ebzery line up support to push for the Forest Service override.
“This certainly does sound like a unique property,” Schramm wrote to Sexton in early 1999. “When the matter comes before the Board [of Regents], I think they will be interested in an estimate of annual costs and some assurance that this transfer is not merely an attempt to help a good friend of the school avoid a permit cancellation but has some real educational benefit. I’ll be happy to come down and work on any documents if Ebzery will pullout a bottle from his wine cellar. I know he is something of a connoisseur.”
In one 1999 missive to Leo Giacometto, now an official in Gov. Judy Martz’s administration, and Ryan Thomas, both of whom worked as aides to Burns at the time, Ebzery warned that it was important not to let Custer National Forest District Ranger Rand Herzberg, who issued the permit denial, know “of our intentions because it will only stir up the Forest Service.”
Documents show that Baucus and Burns apparently balked at Crippen having continued access to the cabin while it was state property. Even though draft language was changed to say the structure must be “used exclusively for educational purposes,” the amendment was not approved by Congress in 1999. The cabin then reverted back to Crippen in a new agreement drawn up by Schramm, and records show the forces regrouped for another assault.
Crippen, like his attorney, did not reply to repeated phone messages from the Independent seeking comment. But documents show another request for Baucus and Burns to intervene began last June with letters from Sexton.
“We feel that destroying this cabin makes little sense, and I urge you to work to add language preventing the cabin’s destruction and allowing its educational use to go forward,” the letters say.
Sexton has been in Hawaii the past two weeks attending a college basketball tournament and did not reply to repeated requests for comment about his involvement.
With sponsorship from Burns, language calling for the school to be given a 50-year permit “extension” for using the cabin was approved by Congress last June. The rider says that public comment on any further extensions would be solicited after the 50-year period.
A U.S. House-Senate conference committee, recognizing the “special and unique circumstances surrounding the use of this facility,” amended the rider to say the use permit “shall” be issued to MSU-B for a 20-year term, with a review after 10 years “to ensure the facility is being used for educational purposes.”
“I believe the enthusiasm demonstrated by the MSU faculty and students in preparing the document showing use of the cabin was compelling with Sen. Burns and his staff,” Ebzery wrote to Sexton last October, just after the conference report was issued. “It was also helpful that Sen. Baucus did not object to this language and the result is a fine outcome for MSU-Billings.”
George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch in Missoula, says conservationists are disappointed that Baucus worked with state officials to alter the law and didn’t try to derail the rider’s passage.
“There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that he clearly, clearly could have stopped it, but chose not to,” Nickas says.
“This provision was moving, but we don’t want this to be viewed as a precedent to allow other inholdings in wilderness areas,” Bill Lombardi, chief spokesman for the senator, countered last week.
A question of fairness
Custer National Forest official Tom Highberger says the owners of another wilderness structure slated for demolition have not sought similar congressional relief. The Pippin cabin, located near the Crippen property, was built about the same time, but the owners are abiding by their agreement with the Forest Service.
“They’re basic, good folks who don’t have a lot of money for attorneys,” Highberger says. “They’ve worked with us very well.”
According to Highberger, a National Environmental Policy Act analysis will be triggered if MSU-Billings applies for a new permit. While the Forest Service may attach conditions, he acknowledges that the permit cannot be denied due to the congressional action.
“Congress certainly has the latitude to look at this differently, and they did,” says Highberger. “We’re assuming [MSU-Billings officials] want it, considering how much energy went into getting it.”
Woosley says the revised language from Congress “absolutely” means the cabin will no longer be available for Crippen’s personal use. He says the school wants to use the facility “to enhance its educational and scientific curriculum to directly benefit students, especially in the areas of environmental studies, biology and physical sciences,” according to an unusual news release distributed last Saturday.
But conservationists argue that the school doesn’t need Crippen’s gift, especially since MSU-Billings already owns a little-used field station just outside the wilderness area near Red Lodge on the West Fork of Rock Creek. School officials admit that the facility is in poor shape and has been neglected for years.
“The handling of the Crippen cabin affair should be made a case study of how not to serve the public interest,” charges Teddy Roe, a former U.S. Senate staffer and key player in getting the Absaroka-Beartooth designated as a wilderness area.
“Personal privilege by pillars of the community, renegade lawmaking by elected officials, and secret dealings by our university system have no place in a representative democracy,” adds Roe, a board member of MWA’s Eastern Wildlands Chapter. “No matter what one may think of wilderness in general, the provisions of the Act are the law of the land. They are deserving of the decency of an open hearing and informed public input.”
A new document that again transfers the cabin to the school was signed last July by Crippen and Sexton. The agreement says the property will revert back to Crippen if the school doesn’t have a new use permit in hand by the end of 2005.
“We certainly hope MSU-B will rethink what they’ve done,” adds Nickas, Wilderness Watch director. “Whoever accepted this for MSU-B really accepted a white elephant with this thing.”