When U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and Sens. John Walsh and Jon Tester were busy celebrating the public lands package they snuck into a bill that was supposed to be about national defense, I wonder if they stopped to think about the landowners and taxpayers they threw under the bus by doing it.

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Another gigantic corporate giveaway at taxpayer expense

One component of their package transfers highly valuable coal under my family’s ranch and our neighbors in the Bull Mountains to Great Northern Properties, a land and mineral mega-corporation spun-off from the railroad many years ago, in exchange for other coal in southeastern Montana. The problem is that Great Northern Properties gets a windfall by giving up low-quality coal with no infrastructure or mining proposals – coal that will almost certainly never be mined – and gaining high-quality coal next to existing mines with a high likelihood of development. Such an uneven trade is like trading a trailer house for a mansion. If this traded coal is mined, the state and federal government lose out on valuable royalties and give them to Great Northern Properties instead. While I appreciate the part of the bill intended to return coal to the Northern Cheyenne that was wrongly taken from them in the first place, it shouldn't be done while lining the pockets of a massive corporation.

In addition, by making federal coal in the Bull Mountains private, our delegation has taken away significant property rights from Bull Mountain ranchers.

It’s a blatant example of a rich and powerful corporation writing a law to give itself a massive handout. Our delegation should be better than that. Tester, Walsh and Daines chose a massive, out-of-state corporation over the livelihoods and property rights of multi-generational Montana ranching families like mine, and they did so at the cost of tens of millions of dollars for Montana roads and schools.

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Picking western Montana over eastern Montana, landowners

While Daines, Tester and Walsh’s package undeniably does some good things, it also continues a decades-old tradition of Montana politicians deciding the western half of our state matters more than the east. The bill designates new conservation protections for certain parts of Western Montana, but does so at the expense of polluting other areas of the state.

The bill would open the door to more development along the Musselshell River. It would also dramatically expedite oil and gas permitting in Eastern Montana communities, where the rapid pace of development is already causing concerns over public health and safety.

Who is our delegation to decide that the Musselshell or Tongue rivers don’t matter as much as the Flathead? There are a whole lot of irrigators who depend on that water, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If one river needs to be protected, then others do too – unless our delegation thinks those waters and the people who depend on them matter less.

For my own part, some of the places this bill might open up to strip mining include the springs where I got married and the cabin where we took our kids during the summer when they were growing up. My family’s ashes are scattered there. These lands include traditional Native American cultural sites, elk habitat that hunters have relied on for decades, and pastures where our community has ranched for generations – land that we hope to keep in agriculture for future generations too.

None of this is new. Politicians have been ignoring landowners and rural Montanans for years, and are used to giving pork to big energy companies in the hopes that they will get reelected. But just because this is business as usual doesn’t make me feel any better nor does it make it right. I’m disappointed that Tester, Walsh and Daines don’t seem to know any better.

Steve Charter lives and ranches over coal that would be traded away by the Montana delegation’s public lands proposal, and is the chair of Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council.

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