Category Archives: Conservation

Save Lake Mead, Save America

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area.

If we can save Lake Mead, we can save America. The issues that face Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam in 1935, are emblematic of the issues that face America. Water from the Colorado River, like the federal budget, is over-allocated. The deficit isn’t so much a lack of water coming in to the lake, but too much going out to water users in California, Arizona, and locally at Las Vegas, Nevada. The result is a permanent white bathtub ring 150 feet above the remaining lake, leaving an oversized dam, and decaying infrastructure throughout Lake Mead National Recreation Area. There is a potential solution to this slow-motion crisis, which can be found three hundred miles to the West.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lake Mead is the closest place to Montana with palm trees, where a person can comfortably pitch a tent and camp in the middle of winter.

Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area in 1936, originally named the Boulder Dam Recreation Area. Measured by capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, but water levels have fallen to 37 percent of capacity. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is administered by the National Park Service, similar to a national park, but with greater emphasis as an outdoor play area than on natural preservation.

Lake Mead has been slowly drying up since 1983. I first discovered the lake in the early 1990s on a winter trip from my home in Montana south to Arizona. Lake Mead is the closest place to home with palm trees, where one can comfortably pitch a tent and enjoy camping in mid-winter. If need be, I can drive the 822 miles from home to the campground at Echo Bay in one long day on the road.  Back then it still looked mostly full, as if the white rim around the lake was due to seasonal fluctuations, rather than a cumulative drop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Touring Hoover Dam with my boys back in 2008. The white bathtub ring in the background is much larger now.

For better or worse, Hoover Dam was constructed when America still had the vision and balls to dream big and tackle the impossible, in this case, the most challenging engineering project ever undertaken, temporarily diverting the Colorado and building a 726-foot dam to restrain the mighty river. 660 feet thick at the top and 45 feet thick at the bottom, the Hoover Dam required so much concrete that the core of is still cooling down from the chemical reaction of cement and water nearly a century later. The entire job was completed in just five years with the aid of 5,000 workers.

Throughout American history, we were a nation of dreamers, from the founding of democracy to construction of the transcontinental railroads and the founding of Yellowstone as the first national park in our country and in the world. Inspired by the dream of America, oppressed peoples in the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Poland, and around the world rebelled against autocratic governments and founded democracies of their own, spreading freedom without American intervention beyond the inspiration of our existence.

Ditto for America’s parks. Author Wallace Stegner described our national parks as “America’s best idea,” an idea that inspired other nations to form similar parks to preserve their own national treasures for future generations. As part of our national parks system, Lake Mead is effectively one of our ambassadors to the world.

cities_in_the_wilderness

Every city should be surrounded by wilderness!

Lake Mead and Las Vegas is also a model for the interface between urban centers and wildlands. The city is uniquely surrounded by vast public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities, what former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt described as a “city in the wilderness.” Every person in Vegas is about a half hour drive from the middle of nowhere, where hiking, camping, and boating opportunities abound. Wouldn’t it be great if every city shared similar opportunities?

Despite proximity to town, Lake Mead is strangely deserted in winter. High temperatures hover from the mid-50s to the mid-60s in December and January, sometimes dipping down to the 40s, chilly, but not unlike camping in the mountains of Montana in summer. By February, temperatures often reach the mid-70s and the cottonwoods leaf out three full months ahead of spring at home. Still, the campgrounds are largely deserted as Las Vegans consider this winter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lake Mead is a great winter getaway, especially coming south from Montana.

The lake doesn’t get busy until spring break or later, when urbanites from Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles begin flocking to the lake to cool off and play in the water. That suits me just fine. I’m content to paddle around the lake in a canoe, enjoying the lack of noisy motorboats and the waves they leave in their wake that could potentially swamp a canoe.

I also enjoy hiking the park’s rugged backcountry before it gets too hot. Lake Mead is rich with wildlife from bighorn sheep and burrows to jackrabbits, roadrunners, and Wile E. Coyote. Unfortunately, the recreation area has taken on an increasingly apocalyptic look as water levels have dropped and facilities have deteriorated or been completely abandoned, mirroring a general decline across America.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As water levels fell, the National Park Service poured more concrete to extend the Echo Bay boat ramp, eventually becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere.

The Echo Bay Hotel was still a waterfront resort when I first visited Lake Mead. I savored ripe dates below a date palm on the west side of the building, wishing I could scale the tree to pick more. The boat ramp in front of the hotel provided easy access to the lake. Each time I returned, the lake was a little farther from the hotel, and the Park Service had poured more concrete, extending the initial board ramp downhill to catch up with the receding lake, ultimately becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere, terminating far from the present lakeshore.

The marina was also pushed farther out into the lake, requiring constant re-engineering of the facilities and ever-longer water pipes, electrical lines, and anchor cables. A quarter mile beyond the boat ramp, the marina was abandoned, and the Park Service plowed a mile-long dirt road from the hotel to access the remaining lake.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Echo Bay hotel and marina were abandoned, contributing to a post-apocalyptic aura.

Not surprisingly, the hotel soon went out of business. Vandals broke the windows and destroyed the interior. Ditto for the abandoned marina. Yet neither place has found room in the budget for demolition and removal, presumably because the Park Service has prioritized chasing the lake to keep facilities functional, rather than cleaning up old messes. The race to migrate the marinas with the receding lake has left behind a litter trail of old docks, parts, cables, concrete blocks and tire anchors. Abandoned boats are surprisingly common in the old dead stands of tamarisk far above the present lake.

Some of my anti-establishment friends see the decline of Lake Mead as prophetic to the inevitable abandonment of Las Vegas and Phoenix, desert cities that shouldn’t exist, sustained by water restrained by a dam that shouldn’t have been built. We should blow up the damn dam and every other dam to allow rivers to flow wild and free and restore the healthy ecology and natural fisheries, they exclaim. This article isn’t about whether or not Hoover Dam should have been built, but as long as it exists, I believe we might as well use it. Besides, if the lake ceased to exist and Las Vegas dried up, all those people might move to Montana.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are many abandoned boats in the dead and dying tamarisk around Lake Mead.

There are also people who cheer the decline of America. Civilization as we know it is not sustainable. We’ve paved over paradise, fracked the planet for consumable resources, and terrorized the world with warfare. They see the collapse of our nation as a necessary step in the path to sustainability, to restoring balance with nature. I see it a bit differently, since there are enough guns and ammo to turn our country into Syria and to wipe out all remaining wildlife for food. All our toxic chemicals would spill unchecked into surface and groundwaters—and best of all—our untended nuclear reactors would melt down and irradiate all life on the planet. Collapse is no longer a viable option. Saving America, and saving Lake Mead, seems like a much better plan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Vandals broke windows and destroyed the inside of the inside of the Echo Bay hotel before it was boarded up to prevent further access.

The doomsayers do have a point though. America has overreached and become a world terror. Gone are the days when we were the most respected and admired nation on earth. Somewhere we transitioned from inspiring other nations to bombing them in the name of peace and democracy. In the latest round of democracy-or-else, we invested $5 trillion dollars a) to remove Saddam Hussein (whom we previously supported and armed against Iran), b) to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (after originally arming and training Afghans to fight the Soviets), and c) to destroy ISIS (which was born in our own Army prisons and armed with American weapons left behind from tasks a and b). In terms of bang for the buck, we don’t have much to show for the investment. Invested differently, $5 trillion could have saved Lake Mead as well as most of America.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas is dependent on water from Lake Mead.

American infrastructure is declining, and Lake Mead is drying up. Due to falling water levels, Las Vegas invested $817 million to construct a new intake pipe to reach deeper into the lake, yet it too is in danger of becoming a straw to nowhere as lake levels continue to drop. The problem is that downstream water users claim too much of the Colorado’s flow, such that experts forecast that Lake Mead will never rise to capacity again. At this point, I haven’t heard of a plan, a vision, or apparently even a discussion on how to remedy the problem. As a country, we lack the dream or the initiative to tackle our most basic problems.

Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on the Colorado for their very survival. Farmers in California’s Central Valley also depend on the river to grow much of the nation’s produce. Los Angeles and San Diego, however, are situated adjacent to the world’s biggest bowl of water, the Pacific Ocean, three hundred miles west of Lake Mead. If these urban centers obtained their water from the ocean and left Colorado water in Lake Mead, the lake would refill at the rate of about 4 percent per year, enough to eventually fill the lake to capacity and potentially restore partial flows across the Mexico border to the Gulf of California.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Investing in desalinization to provide water to Los Angeles and San Diego from the Pacific Ocean could save enough Colorado River water to refill Lake Mead.

At present, desalinization is considered energy-intensive and cost prohibitive, about $2.20 to $5.00 per thousand cubic feet of treated water, compared to $2.00 to purify river water. Yet, the cost of desalinization is falling as other countries, notably Israel, invest heavily in the technology. The cost of wind, solar, and wave power are also falling, making desalinization a realistic possibility, if not now, then in the near future. The federal government and all water users would have to work together to determine who would pay for construction and operation of the desalinization plants.

Notably, Carlsbad, California has recently completed a desalinization plant to augment their water supply, and other plants are being discussed in the state, but apparently not towards the goal of restoring Lake Mead or guaranteeing future water supplies to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Due to the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing water use, any water saved on the California coast would likely be utilized by other entities to fulfill their own claims. This is not an insurmountable problem. The effort required to renegotiate the water compact and build desalinization plants is far less than the bold action initially required to build the dam and create the lake.

Lake Mead needs what America needs, a bold vision for a better future and the balls to commit to making it happen. If we can save Lake Mead, we can just as easily save America and once again become an inspiration and positive role model to the world.

Elpel.info logo. Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Green University, LLC in Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. In 2006, Thomas Elpel and friends paddled the Virgin River from Mesquite, Nevada downstream to Lake Mead… dragging canoes ten miles through the sand. Read the full story.

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservation, Economics, Politics, Public Access, Sustainability, Wildlife

R.I.P. Beaver Chew

Beaver Chew campsite

Beaver Chew was the only public land available for camping on the upper Jefferson River. The next available campsite is twenty-five miles downstream.

Montana trades public campsite to billionaire landowner

Montanans historically enjoyed the privilege of paddling our scenic rivers, camping in farm fields or groves of trees along the way. However, the rise of No Trespassing signs has largely ended this time-honored tradition, forcing paddlers to camp on gravel bars or seek scraps of public land to pitch a tent and stretch their legs. Public lands are especially scarce along the Jefferson River segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, yet the state of Montana traded away a public campsite without a replacement, greatly exacerbating public access issues.

Map sample.

Map detail shows proximity of Beaver Chew campsite to the actual Lewis and Clark campsite near the original confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers.

The 80-acre parcel of state land just below the confluence of the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers was known as Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. In early August 1805, Meriwether Lewis left a note for William Clark at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, but a beaver cut it down, so Clark led the canoes up the wrong fork, leading to a near fatal accident for Joseph Whitehouse, as Lewis noted in his journal, “The canoe had rubed him and pressed him to the bottom as she passed over him and had the water been 2 inches shallower must inevitably have crushed him to death. Our parched meal, corn, Indian preasents, and a great part of our most valuable stores were wet and much damaged on this ocasion.” The expedition backtracked and camped at the confluence to dry their gear.

Fast-forward two hundred years, and the lands that Lewis and Clark freely roamed are now largely off-limits. The state land at Beaver Chew offered the public a unique opportunity to explore the river and camp much as Lewis and Clark did. Now river users are expected to paddle seven miles upstream to the newly acquired land on the Big Hole, or an additional twenty-five miles downstream to the next public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

hamilton_tony_james

The principal owner of Swift River Investments (SRI) is New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James.

The Montana Land Board agreed to trade Beaver Chew to Swift River Investments (SRI), an out-of-state limited liability company owned by three brothers, Benjamin, David, and billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James, in exchange for a slightly larger 111-acre parcel upstream on the Big Hole River. Already owning 38,000 acres, the James brothers sought to remove the public from the only public land on the upper Jefferson without offering a viable replacement.

I’ve had past experiences with state policy makers, so I know how these things go. Key players get together and make a decision, then put it out for public comment. Then the state ignores public input and passes their original decision.

I learned that as a young man when I put down roots in the small town of Pony, Montana and started building my home. A mining company proposed building a cyanide vat leaching facility for processing gold ore on the hill above town. The proposal included a plan to store leftover mining waste for eternity in a rubber-lined pond or impoundment. Members of the community protested that it was a really bad idea to use cyanide or store toxic waste immediately upstream from every spring and well in town. But the state Water Quality Bureau endorsed the mining company’s proposal and approved the plan.

The impoundment leaked cyanide into the groundwater the first time it was used. The company went bankrupt for unrelated reasons, and the state of Montana spent more than $400,000 to clean up spilled cyanide. After a great deal of complaining by the people of Pony, the state eventually provided another $290,000 to contour and reseed the mill site. The main building at the mill site was never torn down. Thirty years after the saga began, we are still plagued by fiberglass insulation that blows out of the dilapidated old building, sometimes in big chunks that litter the hillside, sometimes small bits that land all over town, and often as microscopic shards that can be seen floating through the air we breathe. Not surprisingly, I don’t have a very high opinion of state government.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The landowner posted a No Trespassing sign at the edge of the state land months before the state approved the deal.

The state’s decision to trade away Beaver Chew followed similar form. Prior to soliciting public input, Swift River Investments negotiated the deal with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and Skyline Sportsmen, a hunting group out of Butte. The sportsmen’s group had little interest in Beaver Chew or the new land on the Big Hole. Instead, they supported the package because it was bundled with an upland trade that would increase public access in the Highland Mountains. Overall, the trade package would have been a reasonable deal if it didn’t eliminate the only public land on the upper Jefferson and solidify the landowner’s already extensive wall of No Trespassing signs.

The land exchange was largely a done deal before it went public. Members of the Canoe Trail were naturally opposed to the deal, as were other river users and Lewis and Clark supporters. Yet, at no point did Swift River Investments, DNRC, or Skyline Sportsmen consider reconfiguring the land exchange to address public concerns. They were committed to keeping the original trade package intact. It was never really a question of whether or not to pass the land exchange, but how to appease, settle with, or run over the opposition. In exchange for letting go of the 80-acre parcel of land, the sportsmen’s group offered to gift the Canoe Trail a rock with a plaque on it commemorating Lewis and Clark. We politely declined.

4-acre_campsite

Swift River Investments offered to gift the Canoe Trail a four-acre campsite on the downstream end of their ranch. It was a generous offer, except that it was a poor campsite, and few people would choose to stay there.

Swift River Investments was asked to mitigate the impact of taking away land along the Jefferson, so they offered a 4-acre campsite to replace Beaver Chew. Gifting a campsite to the Canoe Trail sounded very generous on paper, and the landowner solicited support for the deal from individuals, organizations, and government entities. However, the site was inhospitable, mostly rock and cactus, and the public wouldn’t have used it. Ditto for other variations offered by the billionaire. What is the point of having a campsite nobody will use?

Rather than seeking a mutually agreeable solution, Swift River Investments independently crafted proposals that sounded as if they were bending over backwards to address public concerns. SRI didn’t discuss, negotiate, or even inform us about these proposals ahead of time. Instead, they went straight to DNRC and had the proposals published as official scoping notices to solicit public comment. The offers seemed generous on paper, and SRI used these mitigation proposals to solicit public support for the land exchange, even winning the support of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a branch of the National Park Service.

Canoe Trail members would have gladly signed onto any proposal that included a functional campsite to replace Beaver Chew, but none was offered and the landowner seemed determine to make sure we would end up with a campsite the public wouldn’t use, or none at all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A suggestion to purchase a replacement campsite downstream from Beaver Chew was rejected by Tony James because it would have cost him one-and-a-half day’s income.

Members of the Canoe Trail counter-offered several alternatives. We proposed retaining a recreation easement for camping at Beaver Chew, but the billionaire rejected the idea because it didn’t move the public away from the ranch. We proposed expanding their proposal for 4 acres of unappealing rock and cactus to 21 acres to access nearby federal lands, but the landowner didn’t want the public to access public lands behind the ranch. We suggested purchasing a twenty-acre tract farther downstream, which would have cost the landowner one-and-a-half day’s income, but that was apparently too expensive. We also proposed a recreation easement right at the confluence, which would have moved the public across the river from the main body of the ranch. That offer was also declined, for no obvious reason other than that the public would have actually used it.

A core problem with the land exchange was that it included two separate trades improperly bundled into one package. Supporters of the upland trade had little interest in the river parcels. Opponents of the river trade had little interest in the upland parcels. Public comments consistently ran for one trade or against the other. By itself, the upland trade would have been widely supported, yet the landowner, state, and sportsmen’s group held the original deal together and chose to run us over.

Through two years of contentious public debate we were told that there were “hundreds” of supporters behind the land exchange. However, a final tally of public comment revealed that “hundreds” consisted of about twenty people, several of which were the same person signing on behalf of different organizations. Overall, there was more opposition than support for the land exchange, yet public opinion didn’t matter. The land exchange would move forward regardless of public opinion.

Aerial view of Beaver Chew campsite.

R.I.P. Beaver Chew. The final package that went before the Montana Land Board was a bait-and-switch land deal without a replacement campsite.

The final package that went before the Montana Land Board was a bait-and-switch land deal. There was no campsite in the package, yet Swift River Investments and DNRC retained endorsements from parties who believed there was. The National Park Service ultimately retracted its support and opposed the land exchange. The Land Board, consisting of the five highest elected officials in the state, approved the deal anyway.

By dismantling the upper end of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, the state delivered a blow to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and a dream shared by many to provide designated campsites along the Lewis and Clark route from here to St. Louis.

R.I.P. Beaver Chew. The loss of this public property will become a larger issue in the coming decades as a growing population increases demand for public campsites along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. For paddlers following the Trail, there is an especially large gap between the last campsite on the Beaverhead River and the next campsite downstream on the Jefferson.

It is time to move beyond piecemeal management of public lands to take a more holistic view of the LCNHT. We have the equivalent of a long, skinny national park running through our backyards. Let’s protect what we have left for future generations.

Elpel.info logo. Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. He is the founder/director of Green University® LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) and an original founding member of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.  An abridged version of this essay was published as a guest editorial the Helena Independent Record

Related Articles

Billionaire Surcharge Tax: Funding to Restore Public Access
Overlords of Montana: A land and people conquered by money
Posted: Please Trespass: The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam
Freedom to Roam

2 Comments

Filed under Conservation, Jefferson River, Politics, Public Access

Billionaire Surcharge Tax

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Out-of-state landowners are purchasing immense tracts of land in Montana for private game preserves… and locking Montanans out.

Funding to Restore Public Access

Three moose.

Closing private lands, as well as access to public lands, goes against long-standing Montana traditions.

Montana’s wildlife is for sale. While it is theoretically illegal to privatize wildlife in Montana, rich out-of-staters are circumventing the law by purchasing immense tracts of land and locking Montanans out. Traditional Montana landowners historically allowed public hiking, fishing, and hunting on private lands. Now we are overrun by multimillionaires and billionaires who acquire big ranches and post No Trespassing signs to keep Montanans out. They often consolidate numerous neighboring family farms into bigger and bigger megaranches, which they enjoy as private wildlife safaris for their own hunting pleasure. This unneighborly trend has effectively shut down much of Montana to outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing.

Any Montanan who loves the outdoors has felt the impact of these megarich newcomers, yet the rich contribute shockingly little tax revenue to compensate for their oversized impact on Montana. To address core issues and rebalance public access, I propose a modest “Billionaire Surcharge Tax” for property owners with 20,000+ acres of land in Montana. Proceeds from the tax will be directed towards public access programs such as Block Management to reward landowners who continue to allow public access.

The Problem

Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Ferris Wilks made their fortune in the fracking business, then cashed out and brought their money to Montana. They bought the 62,000-acre N-Bar Ranch southeast of Lewiston in 2011 then started gobbling up neighboring ranches to expand their estate to 358,837 acres (560 square miles) by 2015. Like other billionaires and multimillionaires who come to Montana, the Wilks brothers posted No Trespassing signs and closed the ranches to traditional public access, plus they terminated access to public parcels encompassed within their mega-estate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Texas billionaires Dan and Ferris Wilks bought multiple ranches in central Montana since 2011, totaling 358,837 acres (560 square miles), including prime elk habitat.

The Wilks’ empire encompasses the elk-rich Durfee Hills, public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Previous owners allowed public access across private land to access the Durfee Hills, but the Wilks brothers ended the public goodwill, making it impossible to access the Durfee Hills without an airplane. Then they tried to push a land swap to give the BLM more accessible land in exchange for title to the Durfee Hills. Local hunters successfully shot down the proposal, because the land being offered wasn’t prime wildlife habitat like the Durfee Hills. Hunters concluded that it was better to access the Durfee Hills by airplane than not at all. When the deal failed, the Wilks brothers cut a swath around the Durfee Hills and erected a fence posted with “No Trespassing” signs. They also closed off public access to an unrelated parcel on Bullwhacker Road, trying to force the public to buckle to their land swap proposal.

Dan and Ferris Wilks are more visible than other billionaires in the state because of the size and speed of their acquisitions and their aggressive approach towards the public. In less than five years they bought enough ranches to become the biggest private landowners in the state, not counting corporate timberlands. Controversies landed them in the newspapers many times, yet the core issues began years before, when the first rich newcomers began purchasing large tracts of land for private wildlife safaris.

Montanans historically enjoyed a long-standing right to roam the open countryside across public and private lands. Known in Sweden as allemansrätten, “the everyman’s right,” the right to roam has been legally recognized and expanded across many European countries, as detailed in my article Posted: Please Trespass. Montana citizens owned the right to roam until the 1980s, when newcomers began buying large tracts of land and locking the public out. Montanans lost access to private lands where they had previously hiked, camped, fished, and hunted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some of these mega ranches are so immense that game animals seldom leave the property, effectively creating private game preserves.

Many of these ranches are such immense tracts of land that game animals seldom leave these private estates. These are defacto private game preserves where landowners enjoy private hunts, or sell hunting rights to other megarich individuals. A guided elk hunt on these mega ranches sells for up to $15,000. The rich own the land and the wildlife, banning common folk from hunting or even walking there. Feudalism was long ago rejected as reprehensible in Europe, yet we have allowed feudalism, or rather neofeudalism, to take our land and erode our rights here in modern day Montana, as detailed in my article Overlords of Montana.

Collectively, wealthy interlopers are buying up more and more of Montana and eroding our rights, yet contributing shockingly little in taxes. The average property tax on rural, agricultural land in Montana is about 65¢ per acre. The very rich claim residency out of state, so they do not pay Montana income taxes. They have an oversized impact on the Montana way of life, yet contribute very few tax dollars to offset those impacts.

A Solution

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Funds from the tax could help support Block Management for hunter access or applied towards the purchase of land or easements to access land-locked public lands.

One way to help restore balance in Montana is to apply a surcharge property tax on megaranches, directing proceeds towards public access enhancement programs. For example, a surcharge tax on parcels greater than 20,000 acres would apply to only 128 landowners in Montana. Tax proceeds would be directed towards programs such as Block Management, a cooperative private-public partnership between landowners and Fish, Wildlife, and Parks that pays landowners to provide free hunting access to private land, and sometimes to adjacent public lands. Tax funds could also be used to purchase access routes to public parcels that are currently locked up within private lands. A modest $1 per acre surcharge tax on parcels of 20,000 acres or more could potentially raise several million dollars per year to help fund public access.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Landowners would be exempt if they claim residency in Montana and pay state income taxes.

To avoid double taxation, landowners who claim residency in Montana and pay income taxes in Montana would be exempt from the surcharge. In addition, any out-of-state landowner not wishing to pay the tax could choose an exemption by allowing continued traditional public access to their lands. Those who wish to block public access could do so and pay the surcharge tax. Either way, the surcharge tax would help restore balance in Montana, even if all megaranches chose the exemption and paid no taxes.

Dan and Ferris Wilks would be among the most impacted by the tax, contributing $358,837 per year towards public access programs in the state if they didn’t choose the exemption. Numbers on that scale sound unfathomably large to most of us, but not necessarily to the megarich.

Consider, Hamilton “Tony” James owns a 38,000-acre ranch near Twin Bridges, Montana, where he pushed through a land swap to take over 80 acres of public land on the Jefferson River known as Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. James has a net worth of approximately $1.95 Billion, and an annual income of about $78 million from stocks and salary as the chief operating officer of Blackstone, a global asset management company. Dividing that down to a forty-hour work week, a $38,000 surcharge tax on Tony James Montana ranch is equal to approximately what Tony James earns in one hour.

Exemptions

Any landowner who honors the Montana tradition of open access should naturally be exempt from the surcharge tax. The exemption is especially important given that not all megaproperties are owned by the megarich. The biggest private landowners in the state include corporations such as Weyerhaeuser (formerly Plum Creek), nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Reserve, and a few historic ranches that have been handed down through generations of Montanans.

Weyerhaeuser is a forestry and logging corporation from Washington and Oregon that recently merged with Plum Creek from Montana, adding 765,925 acres of land to Weyerhaeuser’s operations. Weyerhaeuser has closed many of its western holdings to private use, except by lease, and there has been concern that the company might do the same in Montana. Fortunately, that has not happened yet, although Weyerhaeuser could change their policy at any time if they choose to. Implementing a $1 per acre surcharge tax would give Weyerhaeuser additional incentive to leave corporate lands open to public use and claim the exemption.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Any individual landowner, corporation, or nonprofit that allows traditional access would be exempt from the surcharge tax, including The Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Foundation.

The Nature Conservancy also owns extensive holdings in Montana, often acquiring properties then spinning them off to public entities. For example, prior to Plum Creek’s merger with Weyerhaeuser, The Nature Conservancy purchased 117,000 acres of corporate forest lands that were intermingled with public lands in the Blackfoot River watershed. These lands remain open to hiking and hunting, so The Nature Conservancy would be exempt from the surcharge tax. Ditto for the American Prairie Foundation, which has raised funds and purchased 84,141 acres of land (plus leased lands) for a public wildlife preserve in central Montana.

Also exempt would be historic Montana ranches where traditional hunting access is still honored, such as the Gordon Cattle Company, with 38,459 acres in north-central Montana Now under conservation easement, the easement includes hunting rights, guaranteeing access for future generations.

Of the 128 landowners with properties of 20,000 acres or more, many would choose to take the exemption, ensuring continued public access on large tracts of private lands. Therefore, the surcharge tax would likely apply only to megarich landowners who purchase properties for private game preserves. These landowners can afford to pay the tax, and likely would choose to pay the tax to continue blocking access to their private reserves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Seventy percent of the deer harvest in Montana takes place on private lands.

Maintaining public access to private lands in Montana is essential for hunters because one-third of the elk harvest comes off private property, along with 70 percent of deer harvest and 80 percent of the antelope harvest.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Landowners sometimes charge up to $15,000 to hunt elk on their private game preserves.

The $1 per acre surcharge tax is not a significant burden to landowners who choose to pay it. For example, Ted Turner owns 148,870 acres spread across four different ranches in southwest Montana. An estimated 2,300 to 3,300 elk reside on Turner’s land, and wealthy hunters pay up to $15,000 for the privilege of hunting them. Therefore, ten of Turner’s elk would pay the entire annual surcharge of $148,870. These funds could significantly improve the public access situation in Montana by rewarding landowners who participate in Block Management to keep private lands open to traditional public access. Equally important, the funds could go towards acquiring access routes to public lands that are currently landlocked within or behind private parcels.

Fine-Tuning the Details

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The surcharge tax could help rebalance public access issues in Montana, even if all affected landowners chose the exemption instead of paying the tax.

The billionaire surcharge tax could help rebalance public access issues in Montana, and it is important to bring this proposal to the 2017 legislature for consideration. However, the tax proposal outlined here is not a perfect solution, and it will require some fine-tuning for implementation.

One issue is that name inconsistencies can complicate identifying large property owners in the state. For example, the Montana Department of Revenue identified 128 landowners with properties of larger than 20,000 acres, yet many names on the list are duplicates.

For example, Franklin Otis Booth, Jr. invested $1 million with Warren Buffett in 1963, which grew in value to $2 billion by the time Booth died in 2008. The Booth family ranch encompasses approximately 125,000 acres sprawled across both sides of the Montana-Wyoming border. In Montana, the Department of Revenue lists “Booth Land and Livestock” with 29,009 acres and separately lists “Booth Land and Livestock Company” with 34,132 acres, for a total of 63,141 acres.

The problem with these near duplicate names is that other landowners may own megaranches that are subject to the tax, but wouldn’t show up in the initial search due to name discrepancies. A landowner with two 19,000-acre ranches under different names would not have been identified in this basic search, and some manual sleuthing may be required.

Likewise, landowners could potentially dodge the tax by purposely registering different parcels under different names, bringing visible ownership under the 20,000-acre threshold outlined in this proposal. Professional bean counters will need to examine the variables and determine the best means to close potential loopholes. Nevertheless, the surcharge property tax outlined here is a solid proposal to begin a statewide discussion on the issue and how to balance public access needs in our home state. It is my hope that state legislators will introduce some form of the surcharge tax into the upcoming 2017 legislature.

Elpel.info logo.            Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. He is the founder/director of Green University® LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS).

Related Articles

The State Lands Shuffle: Facilitating a more holistic public dialogue
Overlords of Montana: A land and people conquered by money
Posted: Please Trespass: The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam
Freedom to Roam

1 Comment

Filed under Conservation, Politics, Public Access, Wildlife

The State Lands Shuffle

Mountain lake.

Montana is rich with public lands, but often without legal access.

Facilitating a more Holistic Public Dialogue

Montana is blessed with immense public lands, totaling approximately 37 percent of the state’s total area. However, more than 3,000 square miles of federal land and almost 1,900 square miles of state land are inaccessible, landlocked within or behind private parcels with no legal access. Public-private land exchanges could help clean up this mess, simplifying management for public agencies and private landowners while improving public access to public lands. The state of Montana could lead this effort, swapping parcels to increase access to both state and federal lands.

Unfortunately, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) lacks basic guidelines to manage land-exchange proposals. The result is an exceptionally unholistic process that can degrade into a counterproductive and  contentious quagmire. Such was the case with the Swift River Investments (SRI) River Holdings land exchange proposal along the Jefferson River. It stands as a case study of how the public process could be improved. It is my hope that lessons learned from this experience will lead to a set of DNRC guidelines to facilitate future land-exchange proposals.

Overview

The Swift River Investments proposal was apparently initiated by SRI and negotiated with DNRC and Skyline Sportsmen, a Butte-based public access advocacy group based in Butte. These three parties negotiated a mutually beneficial package where SRI would obtain two parcels of state land totaling 608 acres in exchange for two parcels of private land totaling 861 acres with greater value and easier management for the state, while providing improved public access to federal lands in the nearby Highland Mountains.

Aerial view of Beaver Chew campsite.

Beaver Chew is a public floater’s camp on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

The upland portion of the agreement traded 528 acres for 750 acres, and the riparian portion traded an 80-acre parcel on the Jefferson River for a 111-acre parcel upstream on the Big Hole River. The proposal would have been a reasonable and fair deal, except that the 80-acre parcel on the Jefferson served as a <A HREF=”http://www.jeffersonriver.org/Canoe_Trail_Campsites.htm”>public campsite</A> known as Beaver Chew on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

In August 1805, Meriwether Lewis left a note for William Clark on a tree at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, but then a beaver toppled the tree. Instead of ascending the Beaverhead, Clark led the men and canoes up the Big Hole River for nearly a mile with great difficulty, camping in the mud. They corrected the navigational error the next day, but had a near-fatal accident on their return downstream. Joseph Whitehouse was thrown overboard and nearly crushed by the weight of the dugout canoe as it passed over him in the river. The expedition backtracked to the confluence, camping there on August 6th, 1805 to dry their gear.

Map sample.

Map detail shows proximity of Beaver Chew campsite to the actual Lewis and Clark campsite near the original confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers.

The state parcel, named Beaver Chew in recognition of this story, was situated near the confluence and served as a public campsite for floaters coming down either the Beaverhead or Big Hole rivers.

Administered by the National Park Service, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is the equivalent of having a long, skinny national park running through our backyards, albeit with no formal protection for the river or the land. The Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the national Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, was formed to steward this segment of the Trail, to advocate for public lands along the Jefferson, and to enhance the Lewis and Clark experience with quality, designated campsites along the way. This project may one day connect with other water trails on the Missouri, forming a continuous chain of campsites from here to St. Louis, Missouri.

Trading Beaver Chew for land on the Big Hole was akin to trading away land in a national park for land outside the park. Beaver Chew was the only public land available for camping on the upper Jefferson. For floaters following the Lewis and Clark Trail down the Beaverhead, it is highly impractical to turn and paddle seven miles up the Big Hole to camp. The next available campsite on the Jefferson is 25 miles downstream.

Beaver Chew campsite

Beaver Chew was the only public land available for camping on the upper Jefferson. The next available campsite is twenty-five miles downstream.

The negotiating parties were unfortunately unaware of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail (JRCT) or that the state parcel served as a public campsite for floaters following the Lewis and Clark Trail. Had they known about the Canoe Trail, Beaver Chew would never have been included in the land-exchange proposal. However, by the time they negotiated the deal between themselves, the parties were reluctant to address the concerns of another user group. They want the Jefferson River Canoe Trail to bear the majority cost of the land exchange.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beaver Chew campsite was appraised at $400,000, yet the real-world replacement cost is considerably higher. Members of the Canoe Trail will have to raise $800,000 to $1.2 million to replace the public land.

The 80-acre parcel was appraised at $400,000, which is an enormous sum in itself. Yet, the real-world cost is considerably higher, since Jefferson River real estate typically sells for $10,000 to $15,000 per acre. If the land exchange went through, the Canoe Trail would have to raise $800,000 to $1.2 million to replace the lost public lands. Rather than working with our group to find an equitable solution, the other parties vilified the Canoe Trail and tried to intimidate and pressure the group with empty offers of “compromise.”

The experience, detailed as follows, shows how the public process broke down and provides insights for potential guidelines to facilitate better land-exchange proposals. These guidelines could form the basis for a land-exchange handbook that could be accessed by DNRC personnel from any office. DNRC would share the guidebook with all involved and interested parties, so that everyone understands how to move forward in a holistic and communicative manner.

1. Basic Research

DNRC should do background research on any parcel involved in any trade.

It would not have been difficult to identify the Jefferson River Canoe Trail as an affected party early in the process. Since 2004, the Canoe Trail has been featured in many local and national publications, including the Montana Standard, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Belgrade News, Madisonian, Lewis and Clark Journal, Big Sky Journal, CanoerootsOutside Bozeman magazine, and The Trail Companion, published by the National Park Service. Type the words “Jefferson River” into an online search, and you will immediately discover the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

River Right article from Big Sky Journal

The Jefferson River Canoe Trail has been featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles dating back to 2004.

If this search had been done, then Beaver Chew would have been excluded from the land-exchange, and the remainder of the deal could have proceeded forward without controversy. Unfortunately, without a guidebook, DNRC personnel were left to make mistakes that are easily avoidable.

2. Public Input

DNRC needs to clarify the role of public input in the land-exchange process.

4-acre_campsite

Swift River Investments offered to gift the Canoe Trail a four-acre campsite on the downstream end of their ranch. It was a generous offer, except that it was a poor campsite, and few people would choose to stay there.

Early in the process we were told that our input mattered in the decision-making process, and SRI offered our group a 4-acre campsite on the downstream end of their ranch to replace the 80-acre site at Beaver Chew. We appreciated the gesture and toured the site, but found largely inhospitable rock and cactus. We picnicked briefly in some broken willows and cow pies, then scrambled for the canoes as soon as it was time to leave. Nobody wanted to stay. What good is a campsite if nobody wants to be there? We politely refused the offer.

Then came the shocker. Instead of working with us to find an acceptable alternative, SRI and DNRC-Dillon chose to advance the proposal to the Land Board, attempting to sell their “gift” to us as a reasonable deal. The “gift” made SRI look generous, at least on paper, and they tried to force us to take an undesirable campsite that the public wouldn’t use. It was a hostile move that fostered an atmosphere of extreme distrust.

3. Notify Affected Parties

DRNC should implement a policy of notifying all known parties affected by proposals under consideration by the Land Board.

When SRI and DNRC-Dillon advanced the land-exchange proposal to the State Land Board for the first time on December 21, 2015, members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail were not invited. We did not receive any notification whatsoever about the hearing, even though our group was directly affected by SRI’s proposal to take away Beaver Chew and grant us an undesirable campsite. We were fortunate to catch wind of the public hearing in advance and were thus able to attend and defend Beaver Chew.

4. Disclose Potential Conflicts of Interest

DNRC and the Land Board need to adopt guidelines to publicly disclose any and all potential conflicts of interest. There should also be clear and consistent guidelines to identify when Land Board members should ethically recuse themselves from a vote.

hamilton_tony_james

The principal owner of Swift River Investments is New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James, who has deep political connections at the state and national level.

When Swift River Investments advanced the land exchange proposal to the Land Board over our objections, we began to wonder who was behind this push. Background research revealed that the principal owner of SRI is Hamilton “Tony” James, a billionaire with deep political connections at the state and national level, including connections to at least one member of the state Land Board. This revelation led to doubts about the public process. Does public input really matter? Was the land exchange decided before we ever heard about it?

These are valid questions that led to considerable paranoia and distrust in the public process. On the one hand, we would like to think that our public officials are above reproach and will objectively consider the proposal based on its merits. On the other hand, SRI and DNRC-Dillon advanced the proposal to the Land Board, didn’t inform us of the hearing, and tried to sell the proposal as a generous gift after we already turned it down.

There never was any public disclosure regarding the nature of the connections between Mr. James and members of the Land Board. How deep are these connections? Were there potential conflicts of interest? Should any Land Board members have recused themselves from voting on this particular land exchange proposal?

Lunch meeting.

Lunching together with members of Skyline Sportsmen. They claimed to be on our side and there to support us, but we later learned they helped draft the proposal that would trade away Beaver Chew.

5. Disclose the Involved Parties

DNRC should immediately supply any interested party a document that a) outlines the land-exchange proposal, b) reveals who is substantially involved in the process, and c) defines the nature of their role in the process.

For eight months we studied, debated, and attempted to negotiate with SRI to improve the land exchange proposal, but at no point did anyone mention that the Skyline Sportsmen’s group in Butte was a key player in negotiating the original proposal. The first time we met Skyline Sportsmen was immediately after our first hearing with the Land Board in Helena. Members of Skyline Sportsmen showed up after the hearing and claimed they were on our side. We went out to lunch together and had a great time. It took another week to learn that they were not on our side, and even more time to learn that they actually helped draft the agreement to take Beaver Chew away from the Canoe Trail.

6. Document the Purpose and Benefits of the Land Exchange

Map of proposed land trade.

Map of the proposed land exchange. Throughout the land exchange it has been excruciatingly difficult to obtain basic details about the proposal.

DNRC should maintain an ongoing public log of who, what, and why of the main points of the land exchange to any interested parties.

Throughout the land exchange proceedings, it was excruciatingly difficult to obtain basic information about the proposal. For example, who added Beaver Chew to the land exchange proposal and why? We heard many different, conflicting answers. What were the benefits of the land exchange for the landowner? For DNRC? For Skyline Sportsmen? It took more than a year to obtain sketchy details about who was involved and what they wanted out of the deal. DNRC ultimately published a Project Development timeline as part of the Environmental Assessment almost two years after we first learned of the land exchange proposal, and only after DNRC closed the official public comment period. This narrative could have easily been provided from the beginning to clarify core issues.

 

7. Consider Inequities Between the Parties

DNRC needs to establish guidelines calling for equitable compromise according to each party’s ability to contribute.

The SRI River Holdings land exchange proposal was a good deal for SRI, DNRC and Skyline Sportsmen, but only at the expense of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail and other river users. Our group would have to raise $800,000 to $1.2 million to purchase an equivalent property for public use on the upper Jefferson River.

Rather than the Canoe Trail alone paying for the land exchange, an equitable compromise would have entailed each party contributing one-fourth of the value in acres or dollars. However, the state has limited flexibility, and Skyline Sportsmen is a nonprofit group like the Canoe Trail, that could not be expected to chip in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Separating DNRC and Skyline from the deal leaves only SRI and the Canoe Trail to split the cost 50/50. Although our group would prefer to retain Beaver Chew as a public campsite, we were willing to accept a reasonable compromise, even considerably less than a 50/50 deal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We proposed that Swift River Investments purchase a 20-acre parcel to replace the 80-acre campsite at Beaver Chew. It would have cost the SRI’s owner, Tony James, 1 1/2 day’s income, but he wasn’t interested in compromise.

In January of 2016 we proposed that SRI could purchase a 20-acre property downstream for a public campsite, and in exchange, we could support the land exchange proposal. It wasn’t a particularly good deal for the Canoe Trail, giving up 80 acres for 20, but it would have minimally satisfied the issues surrounding the land swap. The property would have cost less than two days of the landowners’ income, but the offer was rejected, along with several other compromise solutions from our group. This was coming from a billionaire with 38,000 acres who insisted on pushing the public off the 80-acre campsite at Beaver Chew without providing a functional replacement on the Jefferson River.

SRI could have easily brought our group onboard with the proposal, but instead expected the Canoe Trail to bear the majority cost of the land swap. Rather than spend a few days his time to settle the deal, Mr. James chose to drag the process out for an additional year, consuming hundreds of hours from all parties involved in the process.

Given that the Land Board passed the deal, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail will now have to work for a decade or more to raise funds to replace public lands lost along the Jefferson.

 

mt_dnrc_logo

DNRC published various proposals offering substanceless offers of “compromise” to the Canoe Trail without discussing those proposals with our group ahead of time.

8. Include Affected Parties in the Process

DNRC needs to establish guidelines to include affected parties in drafting proposals before those proposals go public. 

DNRC-Dillon published multiple scoping documents regarding the land exchange proposal without consulting affected parties in advance. For example, on July 13, 2016, DNRC published a scoping notice and asked for public comment on a proposal that included numerous offers to the Canoe Trail without informing the group or soliciting our input in advance. These proposals sounded generous on paper, but they were hollow offers, including:

  • A Lewis and Clark interpretive sign at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers that we didn’t ask for and didn’t want, because the river is highly volatile there, and the sign would end up littering the river.
  • A $50,000 matching grant for future Canoe Trail projects, which sounds great, except that it is only about 5% of the replacement cost for the public lands being taken away at Beaver Chew.
  • A recreation easement for camping on a 4-acre portion of 80-acre parcel of state land, which seems reasonable, except that the site offered is largely uninviting and inaccessible. Plus SRI imposed tight restraints limiting access to three months of the year, and visitors would be required to call the ranch ahead of time to stay there. Moreover the recreation easement would be permanently revoked if people broke the rules or trespassed outside the 4-acre corral.

SRI and/or DNRC could have easily solicited our input in advance to develop an acceptable compromise, but chose instead to present the proposal as if they were granting the Canoe Trail a generous gift. The package was seemingly intended to mislead the public into believing that core issues were being addressed. How could DNRC publish something like this without consulting the affected parties?

9. Protect Public Access to Public Lands

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

SRI River Holdings placed a “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign on the upstream end of Beaver Chew, chasing away floaters who came seeking the public campsite.

DNRC needs to prevent private landowners from posting public lands.

During the summer of 2016, several people reported that they were unable to locate Beaver Chew. SRI posted a “No Trespassing” sign on the edge of the state land, causing visitors to continue downstream, unable to find the campsite. Although SRI’s sign was on their land, the apparent purpose of the sign was to scare the public away from public land. SRI also mowed a patrol pathway along the edge of the state land, facilitating the illusion that they owned it. DNRC shouldn’t tolerate these deceptions. DNRC should immediately post the state land as public, or insist that the landowner remove or clarify their signs.

10. Disclose Conflicts of Interest among Supporters

DNRC needs to establish protocols for disclosing behind-the-scenes connections when facilitating a land exchange.

The land exchange proposal was supported by the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited and other TU members, which sounds like an honest endorsement, at least on the surface. However, the land exchange proposal had no bearing on fisheries issues. The reason Trout Unlimited voiced an opinion on this issue was because the landowner, Tony James, is Vice Chairman and a big donor to Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Fund. TU members were effectively paid to endorse the land exchange.

11. Prioritize Local Residents and Affected Users

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The land exchange proposal was negotiated between outside groups, not those of us who live near and recreate on the Jefferson River.

DNRC needs to establish guidelines to prioritize the concerns of those who are directly impacted by a land exchange proposal.

A key issue with the land exchange was that an out-of-state landowner negotiated the deal with parties in Beaverhead County (DNRC) and Silverbow County (Skyline Sportsmen) to manage and dispose of lands in Madison County without including Madison County residents or Jefferson River advocates who are most impacted by the exchange. The original parties invested time, energy, and momentum in developing a three-way pact, with which they sought to push over those of us who live here.  This was evident at the Nov. 1, 2016 public meeting in Twin Bridges, where land exchange proponents were principally from over the hill in Butte and wouldn’t be impacted by the loss of public land on the Jefferson River.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is widespread support for the Canoe Trail and keeping Beaver Chew or a reasonable alternative on the Jefferson River, yet DNRC is ignoring public opinion.

12. Acknowledge Public Opinion

DNRC needs to acknowledge public opinion in the land exchange process.

More people opposed the land exchange than supported it, according to a tally of all available public comment. Even those who favored the land exchange proposal widely agreed that Swift River Investments should have reached an acceptable settlement with the Canoe Trail. Why then did DNRC go out of its way to finalize the land exchange without settling core issues? Does public opinion matter in deciding the fate of public lands?

13. Develop Consistent Procedures

DNRC needs to develop consistent procedures for facilitating land exchange proposals. 

DNRC-Dillon published several versions of the SRI River Holdings land exchange proposal that included offers to the Canoe Trail, as noted earlier. However, in October 2016, DNRC stripped these settlement proposals from the official documents, declaring that those were side deals that were independent of the state process. Lacking an established set of guidelines to facilitate the land exchange process, DNRC changed the rules on the fly, inventing policies and procedures as they went along. The land exchange process doesn’t need to be this convoluted.

14. Publicly Disclose DNRC’s Position

If DNRC isn’t neutral to the proceedings, then that bias needs to be disclosed in all public documents and at all public meetings.

The state of Montana is presumably a neutral party in land exchange proceedings, intended to facilitate rather than advocate. In this case, however, DNRC was an active proponent of the trade. DNRC needs to publish guidelines clarifying its role in facilitating the public process. Is DNRC neutral? Or does DNRC have its own agenda and thus ignores public opinion?

rock_and_cactus_campsite

Jefferson River Canoe Trail members proposed expanding SRI’s original offer of a 4-acre campsite to 21 acres with a corner crossing easement to access BLM lands, much like other Canoe Trail campsites. DNRC didn’t mention this alternative or other reasonable proposals in the Environmental Assessment.

15. Follow MEPA Process for Public Review

DNRC needs to follow the MEPA process as laid out in the law.

Writing an Environmental Assessment is standard procedure for a land exchange proposal and virtually any other state or federal decision-making process. A typical Environmental Assessment includes a Preferred Alternative, a No-Action Alternative, and several other alternatives, listed as A, B, C, etc. There is a public comment period of thirty or more days after the EA is published before a final decision is made.

Members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail offered several proposals and viable alternatives for the EA. Most of our suggestions were omitted from the EA, and none were evaluated as potential alternatives. Moreover, DNRC closed the public comment period prior to publishing the EA, contrary to Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) Model Rules:

  1. PUBLIC REVIEW OF ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENTS

    (3) The agency is responsible for providing additional opportunities for public review consistent with the seriousness and complexity of the environmental issues associated with a proposed action and the level of public interest. Methods of accomplishing public review include publishing a news release or legal notice to announce the availability of an EA, summarizing its content and soliciting public comment; holding public meetings or hearings; maintaining mailing lists of persons interested in a particular action or type of action and notifying them of the availability of EAs on such actions; and distributing copies of EAs for review and comment.

Although there was significant opposition to the land exchange proposal, DNRC arbitrarily opted to skip public review of the EA in the MEPA process.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Public-private land exchanges can be a positive tool for consolidating public lands and enhancing public access. DNRC needs to publish a set of guidelines to ensure a more holistic process and public dialogue.

Conclusion

Public-private land exchanges can be a good tool for consolidating public lands, facilitating resource management, and enhancing public access. DNRC and the Land Board could greatly improve the public process by publishing a set of guidelines to ensure an orderly, fair, and holistic dialogue to bring all parties together towards common goals. I write this article as a formal request for the state of Montana to establish such guidelines.

In regards to the SRI River Holdings land exchange, Beaver Chew never would have been included in the proposal if DNRC-Dillon did the most basic research early in the process. Failing this fundamental duty, DNRC didn’t attempt to resolve the issues, but instead chose to preserve its alliance with SRI and Skyline Sportsmen against Jefferson River advocates. Those of us who care about and love the Jefferson River bent over backwards in the attempt to accommodate the trade and find a win-win solution to benefit all parties. Unfortunately, Swift River Investments was not willing to compromise or to search for common ground, and DNRC was less than helpful.

The final package that went before the Montana Land Board was a bait-and-switch land deal. There was no campsite in the package, yet SRI and DNRC retained endorsements from parties who believed there was. The Land Board, consisting of the five highest elected officials in the state, approved the deal anyway. Our state government can do better than that. Let’s establish a set of guidelines to facilitate the public process and facilitate, rather than impede, future land exchanges.

Elpel.info logo.            Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. He is the founder/director of Green University® LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) and an original founding member of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Related Articles

Billionaire Surcharge Tax: Funding to Restore Public Access
Overlords of Montana: A land and people conquered by money
Posted: Please Trespass: The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam
Freedom to Roam

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservation, Jefferson River, Politics, Public Access

D-Day Every Day

Nature, Warfare, and the Illusion of Self

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these mangrove seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

I often wonder what it was like for the Allied soldiers to step off the boats into a hail of bullets on the beaches of Normandy. As an empathic person, I get emotionally entwined with other people’s realities. For our soldiers on June 6, 1944, there was nowhere to hide. Allied forces took the beach through sheer numbers, by putting enough bodies on the beach that the Nazis couldn’t shoot them all, that enough soldiers would survive to overtake the German positions, enabling the Allied forces to get a toehold in France, put down roots, and slowly reclaim the European continent. I cannot imagine the horror of advancing across the beach that day. And I can’t help but notice the curious parallels among nature, where D-Day happens every day, and wonder what we might learn from it all.

Landing on another beach on the other side of the world in New Zealand, I was fascinated to discover a legion of army-green seeds amassed on the sand, deposited there by the tides. Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

The seeds shed their outer seed coats, and the folded seed leaves had begun to spread. A few had grown short roots, although the roots were fully exposed to the mid-summer sun. One was several inches tall. The prop-roots on the sides tipped me to the identity—mangrove seedlings. It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

I soon discovered that the mangroves lived in a nearby estuary, well adapted to the brackish water where slow moving river water mixed with salty tidal water from the ocean. They rooted easily there, growing in dense profusion within the sheltered backwater. But the seeds on the beach were doomed. The lack of previously established mangroves on the beachfront implied that the odds were against them, that nature could send battalions in wave after wave to take the beach and each seed soldier would try its utmost to sink down roots and unfurl its leaves, only to be bounced around in the tide, doomed to slowly desiccate in the sand, salt, and sun. Yet, nature doesn’t stop sending in more troops and trying again, because that’s what nature does every day, everywhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Apricots produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity.

Closer to home, I see the same story played out again and again. Thousands of inch-high plant seedlings carpeting otherwise barren ground in early spring when the soil is moist, only to whither and die as soon as the sun dries the soil. Perhaps one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand, survive to carry out their mission. I’ve seen it with feral apricot trees, too. They produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity. It isn’t just about plants either, because every year there is an explosion of new life, new baby birds and cuddly little mammals, and by the following year there are, on average, no more of any given species than there was the year before.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road?

Being empathetic, or rather sympathetic, I cannot help but think that it all seems unfair. Seedling plants, baby birds, newborn fawns, nineteen-year-old soldiers; their lives cut short before they’ve begun. How many mothers lost their precious teenage sons as “cannon fodder” to use up the Nazi bullets? How many soldiers trained for battle, yet took a bullet in the choppy surf, dead before they reached the beach or even fired a shot? How many baby birds are devoured alive by snakes or rats or raptors while their parents helplessly watch and scream in protest and pain? How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road? How many newborn seedlings have given their utmost to put down roots and send up leaves, only to be desiccated in the sun or starved out by more established vegetation?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes.

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes. On the beaches of Normandy, there was no significant advantage for seasoned war veterans over new soldiers seeing their first tour of duty. All were equally exposed to the unrelenting hail of bullets screaming across the beach. And so it is with plants and animals. The seeds that survive to grow into plants or trees are not always those with the strongest genes, but rather those that are lucky enough to find bare ground to take root, yet not so much sun that they dry out too quickly. The shadow of a small rock may provide the magic microhabitat that allows a seedling to take root. If it isn’t grazed off or stepped on then the plant might survive to maturity.

Reaching maturity doesn’t necessarily provide any guarantee of survival either. Many birds have over-wintered in the tropics and flown thousands of miles back to mate, nest, and raise a family, only to be eaten by a house cat upon arrival. I cannot help but sympathize and anthropomorphize with ground squirrels that wake up from hibernation and excitedly run about in a celebration of spring, only to be flattened by a passing car.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world.

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world. The ground squirrels that are instantly flattened are perhaps the lucky ones, at least compared to the deer that are mortally wounded by cars, hunters, or mountain lions, only to die a slow, painful death alone in the brush.

Spend much time in the woods, and you will notice that there are bones everywhere. Everything dies, and frequently in the most painful ways imaginable, such as for a mouse that is repeatedly tossed into the air by the claws of a cat or carried off in the talons of a raptor, often eaten while half alive. For the soldiers, too, I suppose the lucky ones received instant death from a killing shot, while most were just brutally torn apart, gut shot, or totally incapacitated by an exploded femur bone, bleeding to death in agony.

We live in a society that is highly insulated from death and the realities of life. People feel no twinge of pain when they buy a beefsteak neatly shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray, or a head of cabbage decapitated from its roots yet very much alive, even while being finely chopped and mixed in coleslaw. We euthanize our pets or “put them to sleep” as we say it, to mask the reality that we are killing them, indeed murdering them. We hire morticians to embalm our deceased loved ones in lifelike form and display them in pretty boxes. We are so detached from death that we don’t understand what it means to be alive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock.

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock. It feels like murder every time, as it should, because that is the reality of living. As Buddhism teaches, “life is suffering.” The nature of existence is inherently painful, yet we can have compassion for all living things.

Whenever I kill an animal, I find myself wondering who might be left waiting back at home. Did it have a mate? Did it have a mother or father that was still watching over it? Did it have young ones hidden away in a nest or burrow, forlornly waiting for a next meal that will never come? What was it like for women back home, waiting for letters from the war front, never knowing which letter might be the last?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things.

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things. Every plant and animal is a unique individual with its own genome, and with animals at least, a unique “personality.” Yet they are nameless and therefore selfless, celebrated as part of the interconnected web of life, rather than as individuals with personal biographies and self-importance.

The soldiers of Normandy were also selfless and that is difficult to appreciate in a world of selfie sticks and Facebook profiles. I see the names of fallen World War II solders engraved in plaques in city parks across our country. Each one was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, or maybe a father, their lives cut short by warfare. Collectively, they were bodies who selflessly threw themselves at the battlefield, much as the mangrove seeds tried to storm the beach with sheer numbers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty.

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty. The same could be said about the Allied invasion of France.

Our world would be a much darker place today if the Allied forces had decided to accept a Nazi Europe, knowing that the price for taking back the continent would be so high. But a great many young men understood that being a body for the cause was more important than being an individual.

I think about the selflessness of that generation and wonder what we could learn from that today. We live at a time when life is more imperiled than ever before, and the cause is arguably the rise of the self and self-importance. We are a consumer culture, consumed with ourselves. It is the ego of the self that drives people to bulldoze a mountaintop or riverfront property to build a house with a view. It is the self that wants a trendy new car, a big flatscreen television, and organic coffee imported from the other side of the planet. It is the self that cares only for itself, celebrity news, and who wins or loses the Super Bowl.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago.

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago. Yet we are consumed with trivial things like getting a job and buying useless stuff, as if saving the planet were somebody else’s responsibility. But the reality is that there is nobody else, and the only thing that will save us from ourselves is to lose ourselves, to recognize that our lives do not belong to us and never did. Our lives belong to the earth and we are here to serve future generations to the best of our ability.

Halting the destruction of our world and creating a sustainable future will require a selfless commitment equal or bigger than the commitment that took back Europe. For it wasn’t just soldiers on the front lines that made a difference, but all those back home who worked to grow food, build equipment, and recycle metals needed for the war effort. At this late juncture, healing our world will require similar selfless commitment, coordination, and camaraderie of everyone working together towards a single unifying goal: Life. If we pull together towards the common cause, we can make the world a better place for all.

            Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.

 

Interesting stuff?
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservation, Nature Awareness, Sustainability, Wilderness Survival, Wildlife

Freedom to Roam

Montana_Outdoors_May_June_2016

Freedom to Roam was published in the May/June 2016 issue of Montana Outdoors magazine.

Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans since before statehood, lasting until recent times. Ask anyone middle-aged or older about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, exploring, and crossing fences regardless of property boundaries. Unfortunately, many newcomers to the state, unaware of Montana traditions, posted “No Trespassing” signs to keep people out. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, we lost access, and with it, part of our identity. Montanans have always cherished a deep connection to nature. Yet, without the right to roam, children grow up on roads, lawns, and electronics. That isn’t the Montana way.

Our traditions are rooted in Europe, where freedom to roam is recognized by numerous countries from Scandinavia to the U.K.Several nations recently codified the right to roam into law. For example, England and Wales recognized everyman’s right to roam in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000, while Scotland recognized the right with the Land Reform Act of 2003. The public is allowed access, provided they respect private property in their wanderings.

Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were not likely leaving gates open, cutting fences, littering, or vandalizing properties. Those are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners.

An abrigded version of this essay was published as a letter to the editor titled “Don’t fence us in” in the May/June 2016 issue of Montana Outdoors magazine. For more depth be sure to read the related blogs:

Posted: Please Tresspass The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam

Neofeudalism and the Overlords of Montana A land and people conquered by money

The State Lands Shuffle Facilitating a more Holistic Public Dialogue

Billionaire Surcharge Tax Funds to Restore Public Access

Building a National Park

Elpel's logo.
Read more about
Thomas J. Elpel

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservation, Politics, Public Access

Overlords of Montana

Black Angus cows.

“To the naked eye, this is pure Montana, a traditional rural landscape of family farms, except that it isn’t. Montana is being overrun by the superrich, multimillionaires and billionaires who buy up the land for private fiefdoms and lock out ordinary Montanans.”

“The top one-tenth of 1% owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%. The economic game is rigged, and this level of inequality is unsustainable. We need an economy that works for all, not just the powerful.”

—Bernie Sanders

A land and people conquered by money

Driving the backroads of Montana, opulence is not a word that comes to mind to describe pastoral scenes of hay fields, barbwire fences, and herds of black Angus cattle grazing in grassy pastures. To the naked eye, this is pure Montana, a traditional rural landscape of family farms, except that it isn’t. Montana is being overrun by the superrich, multimillionaires and billionaires who buy up the land for private fiefdoms, lock out ordinary Montanans, and reduce local citizens to a peasant class working in servitude for these overlords. Europeans long ago rejected feudalism as reprehensible, yet we have allowed this new feudalism—neofeudalism—to arise and rule over our land and people.

Meet the Neighbors

Montana is part-time home to countless multimillionaires, yet it is the billionaires that make the greatest waves—gobbling up large ranches and family farms to build private estates for themselves and their hunting and fishing buddies.

For the most part, these are not entirely bad people. For example, Ted Turner, founder of CNN, owns four ranches in Montana, totaling 153,000 acres. Highly conservation oriented, Turner has protected much of his land with conservation easements to prevent future development. Turner has raised the largest private herd of buffalo in the world and invested countless millions in environmental and conservation efforts. However, he also went against longstanding Montana traditions by posting “No Trespassing” signs to keep the common folk of Montana off his estates. Turner arguably set the precedent and created the model for other billionaires to follow: Come to Montana, buy a private kingdom, then chase the peasant class off the land.

Downstream from Turner’s Snowcrest Ranch, James Cox Kennedy owns a comparatively small 3,200-acre ranch, including eight miles of the Ruby River. Kennedy once served as chairman of the Colorado Division of Wildlife and on the board of Ducks Unlimited. He has donated heavily to conservation projects, mostly benefiting waterfowl and wetlands. But Kennedy has also waged a long-running legal battle against Montana’s Stream Access Law that allows the public to float and fish on state rivers, including the Ruby River that runs through his otherwise private estate. If it were up to Kennedy, he would own the river, and nobody else could use it. He has even run electric fences across the river to zap floaters.

A short distance downstream from Kennedy, the Ruby River merges into the Beaverhead River and shortly thereafter into the Jefferson River, where New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James bought up a 38,000-acre estate for his personal recreational fiefdom. Like Turner and Kennedy, Tony James is a conservationist, a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society and several similar organizations, and an advisory board member of the Montana Land Reliance, an organization working to protect land with conservation easements. Like his fellow billionaires, James chose to block traditional public access to private lands, and like Kennedy, James isn’t a big fan of public access even where the public has a legal right.

Beaver Chew Campsite

Billionaire Tony James is attempting to take control of “Beaver Chew,” an 80-acre public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

James somehow felt it necessary to push the public off the only public land remaining along the upper Jefferson River. Through his ranch company, Swift River Investments, James cut a deal with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to give him 80 acres of state land that served as Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. James traded a slightly larger parcel on the nearby Big Hole River, which might have been a reasonable deal if it didn’t eliminate essential public land on the Jefferson.

Losing Beaver Chew was a severe blow to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and a dream shared by many to provide designated campsites along the Lewis and Clark route from here to St. Louis.

Bull Elk.

The Wilks brothers want to take control of prime elk habitat in the Durfee Hills through a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management.

Also relatively new to Montana, Dan and Ferris Wilks made their billions in the fracking industry and quickly consolidated numerous ranches and family farms into a giant, 360,000-acre private estate, more than twice the size of Turner’s holdings in Montana, and half the size of the state of Rhode Island. Like other billionaires, the Wilks brothers closed the land to traditional access and have tried to expand their grasp to public lands. The Wilks sought to obtain prime elk habitat in the Durfee Hills through a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management, which was successfully shot down by area hunters. The Wilks’s responded to the defeat by erecting a fence encircling the Durfee Hills and posting No Trespassing signs.

Forrest Mars, Jr., a billionaire of Mars, Inc. that makes M&Ms, Mars, Milky Way, and other candies, bought out local ranches, assembling an 82,000-acre estate called the Diamond Cross ranch that encompasses much of the upper Tongue River near Birney, Montana. Mr. Mars also closed the properties to public access.

Initially, Mars seemed like a great ally to local environmentalists because he joined the fight against he proposed Tongue River Railroad, which would have hauled coal from the proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine. But Forrest Mars Jr. ultimately solved his problem the way billionaires do: He bought a share of the Tongue River Railroad and redesigned the railroad so it wouldn’t cross his land! Fortunately, the coal company eventually filed bankruptcy, and plans for the Tongue River Railroad died with the declining coal market.

Even the notorious Koch brothers have a ranch in Montana. Charles and David Koch, each with a net worth of $45 billion, own the 96,070-acre Beaverhead Ranch southeast of Dillon. They are best known for meddling in politics nationwide with a right-wing Tea Party agenda, including trying to influence elections to Montana’s supreme court.

Rounding out the list of Montana’s most infamous billionaires, Tim Blixseth, a real estate developer, took a bulldozer to the heart of the Madison Range to build the Yellowstone Club, a recreational gated community for billionaires and billionaire wannabes. If you want to have a vacation home next to Bill Gates, it is the place to be, but the gated community bisects habitat where wildlife would otherwise be free to migrate the full length of the Madison Range. Fortunately, Blixseth ultimately went bankrupt and spent fifteen months in jail for contempt of court because he failed to account for millions of dollars he owes to creditors.

It is particularly fitting that Blixseth should lose his freedom and land in jail, because the essential crime committed by him and his fellow billionaires is a fundamental loss of freedom for all Montanans.

“I think what the American people are saying is enough is enough. This country, this great country, belongs to all of us. It cannot continue to be controlled by a handful of billionaires who apparently want it all.”

—Bernie Sanders

Lost Freedoms

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomena in Montana.

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomena in Montana.

Before the millionaires and billionaires came, Montana belonged to everyone. Ask anyone middle-aged or older about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, exploring, and crossing fences regardless of property boundaries. Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans since before statehood, and landowners were typically pleased to see people engaged in healthy recreation on their farmlands. Unfortunately, as wealthy newcomers moved into the state, they bought land and posted boundaries with “No Trespassing” signs effectively keeping local people out. Miles out in the country, far from the nearest farmhouse, these signs appeared, threatening prosecution against anyone who should be brazen enough to take a walk on the overlords’ lands.

My first encounter with neofeudalism consisted of a gate plastered with about a dozen No Trespassing and Keep Out signs. It was April 1988, and my girlfriend and I were several days into a 500-mile walk across Montana. We started at my grandmother’s house in Pony and walked cross-country to Three Forks where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers come together to form the Missouri River. We followed railroad tracks downstream along the Missouri to Sixteen Mile Creek, planning to retrace the old railroad bed upstream east towards the Montana prairie. The railroad was clearly marked on our maps, but the railroad company went bankrupt in the 1970s and their easement was abandoned, allowing the land to revert to private ownership. That wasn’t a problem, but the No Trespassing signs were. After assessing our situation this far along, we concluded that we had no other alternative. April is still somewhat wintery in Montana, and Sixteen Mile was the only reasonable path to cut through the mountains to the prairies beyond, so over the gate we went.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

SRI River Holdings, a.k.a. Tony James, placed a “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign on the upstream end of state land at Beaver Chew, scaring away floaters who come hoping to camp on the public land.

At first the fiefdoms were few and far between, annoying, but not totally threatening. After all, Montana is a big place, far bigger than the boundaries of a few isolated fiefdoms. However, the superrich expanded their holdings, gobbling up family farms into ever-larger holdings, and new overlords joined them, buying more and more land. As aspiring Montana writer John Dracon pointed out, Europeans found the feudal system reprehensible, so it is ironic that feudalism is making a comeback in modern times. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, we lost access, and with it, part of our identity. Montanans have always cherished a deep connection to nature. Yet, without the right to roam, children grow up on roads, lawns, and electronics. Disconnected from nature, people lose respect for the land, making them more likely to leave a trail of litter, graffiti, and vandalism. It isn’t the Montana way.

As I later discovered, the gate plastered with No Trespassing signs was the boundary to Turner’s Bar None Ranch. He owns three massive ranches within fifty miles of Pony, while Kennedy, James, and other megarich landowners have been steadily gobbling up the remaining private lands in between.

Sixteen Mile Creek was one of the most amazing places we encountered in our walk across Montana. The creek ran high and muddy, and it would have been difficult to ascend the narrow, winding canyon, except that the old abandoned railroad bed included wooden trestles over the water and multiple tunnels boring through the solid rock canyon walls. We saw 28 elk and 250 deer in a single day.

Although it is illegal to privatize wildlife in Montana, some of these enormous ranches encompass enough land to effectively privatize the wildlife within. For the low, low price of $14,000 – $15,000, private parties can hunt elk on Turner’s ranches. In our journey, we did cross paths with Turner’s land manager, but much to his credit, he simply waved us onward.

Bison grazing.

Ted Turner raises bison and supports wildlife and conservation, but also helped start neofeudalism in Montana.

I’ve never been anti-Turner. After all, he has placed conservation easements on much of his land, protecting it in perpetuity from being subdivided and developed. That is good news for preserving wide-open vistas behind our unofficial slogan, “Big Sky Country.” Turner also raises bison, arguably helping to bolster the cause of an animal so iconic to our country that Congress named it our national mammal. In addition, Turner donates money to numerous causes, and he supports local community programs with small grants. A community grant from Turner provides modest support ($1,800/year) for my own work teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills to school kids.

Turner’s ranches were always far enough away that I wasn’t directly confronted with the loss of access myself. It wasn’t until other millionaires and billionaires started claiming the land in between that I really began to notice the squeeze.

Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were not likely leaving gates open, cutting fences, littering, or vandalizing properties. Those behaviors are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners. Without freedom to roam, Montanans are reduced to serfdom to the overlords.

“There has been class warfare for the last thirty years. It’s a handful of billionaires taking on the entire middle-class and working-class of this country. And the result is you now have in America the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth and the worst inequality in America since 1928. How could anybody defend the top 400 richest people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people?”

—Bernie Sanders

Serfdom

The saddest part about the rise of neofeudalism in Montana is that people who live here are reduced to a peasant class working in servitude to these out-of-state overlords. In the past, Montanans had the right to go anywhere, but now people are only allowed onto the overlords’ estates as servants to vacuum carpets and mow lawns.

Countless Montanans have prostituted themselves to the wealthy for a paycheck. Some are employed bulldozing roads deep into pristine landscapes, building mansions that are maintained and heated all year long, yet seldom occupied by the overlords. Others are employed building fences where none existed before, paid to install the No Trespassing signs that will keep themselves out as soon as the job is done. It seems like a good deal, getting paid by the filthy rich to mow a lawn or plow a driveway, but the price is that we are no longer a free people. We are increasingly indentured to overlords who use the people of Montana and then threaten to turn the police upon us if we violate their airspace by walking through woods that they themselves will likely never visit.

The serfdom that Montanans are subjected to isn’t limited to merely doing chores for the billionaires. One problem in dealing with the megarich is that they are willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. For example, a land swap proposal, such as Tony James’ bid to take control of public lands along the Jefferson River, commands time and energy of dozens of people, including common citizens who must clear their own schedules to deal with the issues.

Land trades are the billionaire’s game of Monopoly. Rather than get their own hands dirty, a landowner typically hires minions to do the dirty work to push a land swap proposal through the public scoping process, in this case enlisting the real estate services of American Lands, based in Missoula, Montana. Like anyone indentured to the megarich, the people at American Lands perceive servitude as opportunity. They claim to vet their clients carefully, working only for billionaires who are committed to conservation. They may purport to favor a collaborative process to seek out win-win solutions, but in order to serve the overlords, they are also willing to pit Montanans against Montanans, and if necessary, steamroll anyone who gets in the way.

A billionaire can potentially push a land swap deal with only one or two hired guns to move it forward, because public officials do much of the actual work, and taxpayers foot the bill. Public employees effectively work for the landowner, calculating land values, holding public hearings, and soliciting public comments. If a trade goes through, then the state or federal government may gain a few acres of land, ‘of equal or greater value,’ but there is no accounting for the cost of employee time to administer the land swap.

Above all, it is the common people, the peasant class, that are functionally reduced to servitude to the billionaire’s agenda in these land swap proposals, sometimes in favor, often opposed, and sometimes compelled to face off against each other. In order to protect their public lands, ordinary people must set their lives aside to attend meetings, get educated on the issues, and make informed public comments. Mounting a successful campaign can consume months of time and considerable expense for such things as babysitters, fuel, luncheon meals, and printing costs. Win or lose, nobody gets compensated for their time and expense in dealing with these issues. It is the billionaire’s game of real estate. They decide when they want to play, and in doing so, they dictate the agenda for affected citizens for months or years.

The irony is that billionaires play from afar, willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. That was evident at a public hearing on Mr. James’ land swap proposal. The meeting consumed the time of our state’s highest public officials, including the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and other state employees. Also attending were those of us who set aside our day to drive to the Capitol on icy roads to testify. In effect, every person in the room was there in servitude to the neofeudal overlord who didn’t bother to show up himself.

“This is what oligarchy looks like: Today, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The top one-hundredth of 1 percent makes more than 40 percent of all campaign contributions. The billionaire class owns the political system and reaps the benefits from it.”

—Bernie Sanders

Absolute Power

The problem in dealing with people with too much money is that they are accustomed to getting anything they want. On the surface the overlords may seem like genuinely nice people, benefactors who donate funds to support local communities and environmental causes. But money comes with a price, and the overlords do not hesitate to use it.

Outside_Bozeman

Author Don Thomas lost his job at Ducks Unlimited magazine for writing an article about James Kennedy that was published in Outside Bozeman magazine.

James Kennedy, for example, is a big time donor to Ducks Unlimited, greatly benefiting waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. Yet, he has also funded fifteen years of litigation against the state of Montana to limit public access to Ruby River where it crosses his estate. Kennedy is a media mogul, part of the Cox family that controls the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) plus numerous other daily newspapers, television stations, and dozens of radio stations. Kennedy has been described as “the most hated person in Montana,” and his crusade against stream access rights is constant fodder in Montana newspapers. Yet his media audience in Georgia has never heard about Kennedy’s doppelganger life in Montana, and the AJC has notably omitted major news stories on similar issues in their home state of Georgia. Sadly, when Montana author Don Thomas chronicled the long-running legal saga in Outside Bozeman magazine, Thomas was summarily fired from his job at Ducks Unlimited magazine. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, but that right doesn’t apparently include freedom to criticize the overlords.

In a similar vein, Tony James is Vice Chairman of Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Fund, and not surprisingly, local Trout Unlimited chapters support his land swap proposal to take away Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Map of Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Map of Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Then there is the problem of money in politics. Tony James has deep connections to the Democratic Party, and he has hosted fundraisers in his home for President Obama and Hillary Clinton. James has aspirations of being chosen as Secretary of the Treasury. He also has deep ties to Montana Democrats, including Governor Bullock.

Bullock is one of five members of the Montana Land Board, the five highest elected officials in the state that ultimately decide “yes” or “no” on land exchange proposals. It is unclear whether or not the land swap proposal can get a fair trial with an influential billionaire pulling the strings.

Most alarming, James Kennedy, Charles Schwab, and the Koch brothers have all contributed big dollars to political campaigns to reshape the Montana Supreme Court in their favor. Kennedy donated $100,000 and Schwab $3o0,000 in so-called dark money towards a successful campaign to unseat justice Ed Sheehy. They bought a seat on Montana’s highest court with Laurie McKinnon, who has since sided with the billionaires on public access issues.

Sir John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Montana is a land and people conquered by money. If we want to be a free people again, we must begin by making a united stand against the overlords. As Bernie Sanders proclaimed during his 2016 campaign for President, “The greed of the billionaire class has got to end and we are going to end it for them.”  

Who’s with me?

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.

An abridged version of this article was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Outside Bozeman magazine (pages 84-87).


Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

6 Comments

Filed under Conservation, Politics, Public Access, Wildlife