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"We do have opponents out there," Gustafson says of landowners like Fix. "On the other hand, I can introduce you to a lot of people in Otter Creek, introduce you to a lot of people between Ashland and Birney, who would tell you they're very supportive of it. And so it's a mix."
I went to Birney, also along the Tongue River, and talked with rancher Terry Punt, who confirmed that sentiments surrounding Otter Creek and the Tongue River Railroad vary.
"Everybody's got their reasons," said Punt, sitting at his kitchen table. "They think they're going to get a job, or their son or daughter will. I hate to argue with anyone on those kinds of issues because if I needed a job, I might be more open to having Otter Creek; or if my kids were starving and needed a job, I might change my tune."
The Tongue River Railroad was slated to run through Punt and his wife Jeanie Alderson's 8,000-acre Bones Brothers Ranch, which Alderson's family homesteaded in the 1880s. Punt also lamented that the railroad would bring more people and forever change their rural way of life. But it appears their ranch will be spared.
Last Thursday, news broke that Forrest E. Mars Jr., the candy bar and pet food mogul who owns an 82,000-acre ranch in the area, was the private investor who teamed with Arch and BNSF earlier this month to buy the Tongue River Railroad Company. Mars had been an opponent of the railroad, helping Northern Plains fund litigation. Buying a share of the railroad allows him to nix the southern portion of the railroad that would have crossed his land. That section is about 50 miles long, between Decker and O'Dell Creek Road, about six miles northeast of Birney. The rest of the project would move forward with Mars's full backing. "I will not be helping you fund the current appeal or any future litigation on these issues," Mars wrote in a letter, dated July 18, to Northern Plains Resource Council.
"For us on the lower end of the river," Fix says, "we're still in their gunsights."
The Cheyenne have a say
In the debate over Otter Creek, the way of life and property rights of ranchers along the Tongue River and in the Otter Creek Valley, damage to the landscape, and the implications of increased CO2 emissions are weighed against an economic windfall for the state and job opportunities for eastern Montanans. But there's another important consideration: the Northern Cheyenne Nation.
The Otter Creek coal tracts lie to the east of the Tongue River. To the west, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, lies a coal deposit called Logging Creek that's nearly as large, containing about 1.2 billion tons. It represents a much-needed economic opportunity to the tribe, which has an unemployment rate of over 60 percent.
But the tribe doesn't own all of the mineral rights to the deposit. Houston, Texas-based Great Northern Properties owns about 5,000 acres' worth. It acquired the rights in 1992 from Burlington Northern Railroad, which had inherited them from the Northern Pacific Railway. The mineral rights should have been turned over from Northern Pacific to the tribe in 1900, when the reservation was expanded, but they weren't, due to, in the words of Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, "the federal government's surveying errors."
To correct this century-old mistake, Rehberg and Montana Sen. Max Baucus introduced legislation in March to give those mineral rights to the tribe. In exchange, Great Northern Properties would receive rights to about 232 million tons of federal coal near Ashland and Roundup. That's almost twice as much coal as the tribe would receive in the deal, although not all of it could be mined.
Northern Cheyenne President Leroy Spang says the swap is in the tribe's economic best interest.
"We have to bring some money into this tribe and I think responsible coal development is one of our best bets," Spang wrote in a recent tribal newsletter.
During a June 22 hearing on Rehberg's Montana Mineral Conveyance Act before the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Jodi Gillette said an appraisal is needed to ensure the two sides receive equal value.
Even if the tonnage doesn't match, the tribe stands to receive 40 percent of royalties on sales of the coal acquired by Great Northern, which creates an incentive for the tribe to support off-reservation coal development, whereas the Northern Cheyenne have historically been reluctant to tap even their own vast coal reserves.
Says Punt: "The thing I don't like about it, and the thing Northern Plains Resource Council doesn't like about it as a group, is that it pits the Cheyenne, who have always been our allies, against us in a way they've never been pitted against us before."
That would appear to make two former allies in the fight against coal development in eastern Montana—the other being the billionaire Forrest Mars—who are shifting sides.
A small hurdle was cleared last Wednesday, when the House subcommittee unanimously passed the Montana Mineral Conveyance Act. "We'll finally give the Northern Cheyenne control of their own resources and the associated revenue while creating good jobs for the people of Montana," Rehberg said.
The biggest hurdle remains the approval of Arch Coal's Otter Creek Mine permit. If that succeeds, the Tongue River Railroad would be next, and the mining of the Northern Cheyenne's Logging Creek could follow.