Monday, October 28, 2013

Competing visions for Montana's Hi-Line

The American Prairie Reserve, a conservation group attempting to create a prairie grassland reserve for 10,000 bison to roam free, is coming to loggerheads with ranchers in northeastern Montana--a segment of the Montana Hi-Line--according to a story in yesterday's New York Times.  Jack Healy reports from Malta, Montana, population 1,997, under the headline, "Vision of Prairie Paradise Troubles Some Montana Ranchers."  Healy quotes George Matelich, who chairs the conservation group, calling the reserve "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," and “a project for America.”  But in a story of conflict between agriculture (and rural culture) and environmentalists (and/or developers)--a story now familiar across the rural West--locals don't share that vision:
They say they know the transformative power of real estate out West: Western mining towns become ski havens, high mesas become ranch retreats for business moguls, and cultures inevitably change.
The reserve already has acquired 274,000 acres in private ranches and public lands, leaving some ranchers feeling boxed in, but insisting they will not sell.   Healy interviews several ranchers in that camp.  One is Leo Barthelmess, 57, who runs sheep and cattle on 25,000 acres.  
We don’t intend to sell.  We have children coming back. We’re working on a succession plan. We want this landscape to carry on to the next generation.
Barthelmess, whose family settled here half a century ago, is among ranchers who say they have "already saved this landscape" by rebuilding "the prairie, season by season, since the destruction wrought by the Dust Bowl. They work with conservation groups, rotate their herds to encourage a healthy mix of prairie grass and set aside ample room for sage grouse, plovers and herons. They are trying to till less ground, which can destroy an underground ecosystem. Some even allow small colonies of prairie dogs, which many farmers exterminate as pests."

Others talk not only about farming, but about other aspects of rural culture and identity, as well as rural economics. 
Two years ago, people here railed against the whiff of a federal proposal to create a new national monument along the Canadian border. A billboard along the gravel roads informs visitors that the county can produce enough cattle to feed more than two million people.
Healy quotes Perri Jacobs, a female ranchers whose ranch has been in her husband's family nearly a century:  
These are our livelihoods, these are our businesses.  This is an agriculturally based economy. That’s about being able to fund our schools and our government and being able to support our businesses on Main Street.
I am reminded of the analysis I did here on local government funding in Montana, with its often heavy reliance on Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), funds the federal government pays to local governments to offset local government inability to collect critical tax dollars on public lands.  It is not clear how schools and other services would be funded if the reserve is established--how that land would be taxed, as agricultural or otherwise.  Sadly, the American Prairie Reserve probably doesn't care.  

Malta is the county seat of Phillips County, population 4,128, already down 125 residents since the 2010 Census. 

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