Our Members' Work

Northern Plains Resource Council

NFFC is featuring a different member organization each month. This April, NFFC is pleased to feature longtime member Northern Plains Resource Council (Montana). Read much more of their fascinating story at https://northernplains.org/historyproject/.

Northern Plains was formed by ranch families who were concerned about the threat that industrial-scale coal mining would have on their property and on their ability to make a living from ranching. People in the region who lived above or near coal seams became aware of the North Central Power Study produced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with private and public utility companies, electric cooperatives, public power districts, and several cities. It proposed siting 42 coal-burning power plants in the Northern Great Plains, 21 of them in Montana, and would have enabled the use of 2.6 million acre-feet of water annually from the Yellowstone, Big Horn and Wind, Tongue, Powder, and North Platte Rivers to cool all those plants.

The impacts of such a plan – depleted land and water, massive air pollution, a maze of high-tension lines taking electricity from the region – would have devastated people trying to earn a living by farming or ranching. It raised the specter of eastern Montana becoming a “national sacrifice area” for energy production. Not surprisingly, residents of that region were the people who stood against this plan.

Members of two local rancher groups – the Bull Mountain Landowners Association and Rosebud Protective Association – formed Northern Plains at a meeting in Boyd and Anne Charter’s living room in the Bull Mountains in 1972. The Montana Secretary of State filed a certificate of incorporation on September 22, 1972. That October, Northern Plains Resource Council met under its newly adopted charter to elect its first officers and directors.

Coal mining and its impacts were Northern Plains’ primary focus for several years. Much of that work involved getting rural families to tell one another what the coal companies were saying. They came to learn that coal companies relied on a “divide and conquer” strategy, and Northern Plains responded in its first newsletter with a list of “battle tactics” used by coal companies and what individuals could do in response:

• Once a coal company shows a contract, landowners should ask if their land can be reclaimed to its original productivity, and what will happen to their springs and subsurface water table? Will their ruined wells be replaced, or their land replaced if the coal company forfeits its bond?
• Landowners should hire another lawyer if the coal company knows more about their lawyer’s habits than they do.
• Landowners should always have witnesses to their conversations, and companies not allowing witnesses should be shown the door.
• Landowners have more rights and power than the coal company wants them to think, and should not feel rushed into signing anything.
• Landowners may feel pressure from neighbors or acquaintances acting on behalf of the coal company, and should always check with any neighbors from whom the company has allegedly leased land.
• Landowners should consider the effects of their actions on their grandchildren.

Northern Plains member Wally McRae said, “This is my heritage, and the land and livestock are no less important to me than they were to my grandfather. I can assure you that I and others like me will not allow our land to be destroyed merely because it is convenient for the coal company to tear it up.”

In a 1974 flyer, Northern Plains proclaimed:
"The Council is committed to maintaining a viable agricultural economy, and protecting land upon which agriculture depends, and our way of life, recognizing that all of us draw our livelihood from the land, and that we have an obligation to insure a viable and self-sustaining homeland for future generations."

Through the 1970s, Northern Plains worked with other citizens groups and played a key role in the passage of Montana’s basic environmental protection laws: Major Facility Siting Act; Hard Rock Mining Impact Act; Water Use Act; Strip Mining and Reclamation Act; Coal Conservation Act; and Coal Severance Tax Act. They also advocated Congress to pass a federal strip mining law, partly based on Montana’s law, which President Jimmy Carter signed as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act on August 3, 1977. The US Office of Surface Mining presented Northern Plains a Citizens Award on SMCRA’s 20th anniversary for their work in creating the law and their persistent efforts on coal issues.

Large-scale coal strip mining arrived in eastern Montana but nowhere to the extent projected by the North Central Power Study. Northern Plains sought to find ways to keep family ranching viable even when a coal mine moved into the neighborhood. The mines are still there today, and so are the ranches. This is not something that would have happened by itself.

In 1979, Northern Plains joined forces with two other citizen groups – the Dakota Resource Council in North Dakota and the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming – to form the Western Organization of Resource Councils. Based in Billings, Montana, WORC has member groups in seven Western states, and assists those groups through training, research, and other work on shared issues.

Fossil fuel development can be so hard on nearby farms and ranches because it lays heavy burdens on the land, water, and air, and those effects reach so far into the future. Northern Plains will be involved with these issues for many years to come, working to ensure that the voices of individual Montanans are heard as clearly as those of corporate lobbyists to influence how their land and water are treated and to keep family farming and ranching viable in Montana.