Montana News

Mar 19, 2010 9:42 AM by Marnee Banks

Otter Creek leases approved despite protest

HELENA - The Montana State Land Board approved leasing 9,500 acres in southeast Montana to Arch Coal at fifteen cents per ton, plus a bonus bid of nearly $86-million dollars.

We were at the meeting to hear the decision and observed as a small group of protesters made their presence known.

Members of the Land Board include Governor Brian Schweitzer, Attorney General Steve Bullock, State Auditor Monica Lindeen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, and on Thursday, there was a meeting to address the Otter Creek issue.

The Land Board heard a flood of public comment over Arch Coal's proposal. New to the table were several superintendents from eastern Montana urging the Board to move ahead with the lease.

Jim Hansen, superintendent of Broadus Public Schools, said, "Today you have the opportunity to provide a brighter future for the children of not only Powder River County but all the students in our state."

Also new to the podium were members from the disabilities community, also urging the Board to lease the land.

June Hermanson of the MT Association for Rehabilitation said, "The natural resources in this state may be tapped into in a responsible fashion; by doing so (we) can support what we always consider our greatest natural resource in this state, and thats its people."

Those opposed to the lease expressed concerns about the environment, and using the lease money as a temporary fix.

Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center said, "If you really intend to fund these programs with this money, you should be getting full market value, fifteen cents is not full market value."

Arch Coal president David Finnerty addressed the concerns of mine workers by promising to allow union participation, saying, "Arch further recognizes and appreciates the opportunity to do business in the state of Montana and acceptance of our bid by the Land Board today is certainly a great step in that process."

In the middle of a motion to approve the lease, five protesters from Missoula took the floor and security escorted the members of the Land Board out of the room. The protesters stated they would not leave until the Board decided against leasing the land. Protester escorted out of Land Board meeting

Helena Police cuffed the individuals and removed them from the room; the protesters are reportedly going to be charged with disorderly conduct.

When the meeting continued, Governor Schweitzer, McCulloch and Lindeen voted to approve the lease, while Juneau and Bullock dissented.

The decision was a big move for the state, either way you look at it. Governor Schweitzer says the money will help the state budget and prevent cuts and issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying: "This is cash in the bank today, an estimated $5 billion to the state over the next 25 years and more than 1,000 good paying jobs for the next generation."

Developing Otter Creek coal also means the construction of the Tongue River Railroad, a project that will provide a rail link to deliver the coal.

But Northern Plains Resource Council strongly disagrees, saying the state could have received more money for the land. They believe Montana's government favors the West over the East when it comes to protecting resources.

A past chair for Northern Plains Resource Council, Beth Kaeding, says they're considering petitioning for a new name for the Tongue River.

"Frankly, Northern Plains is considering petitioning the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to rename the Tongue River as the East Fork of the Flathead River," Kaeding states. "Maybe then you would consider this area of the state special enough to protect from the ravages of mining, oil and gas, and coal development."

Former Norther Plains board member, Eileen Morris, owns land on Otter Creek and is disappointed by the news.

"Some people think of southeastern Montana as some vast wasteland. It's not," Morris says. "They have not been there if they think that. I don't know why we should sacrifice our lifestyle when other parts of the state won't sacrifice theirs."

Director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Mary Sexton sees Thursday's decision as a step in the right direction.

"There's a tremendous amount of support in the east. There's some people that are concerned about it, yes," Sexton admits. "The lease itself is very tightly written to protect the resources in Montana, the land board is dedicated to that, and I think this is a good move forward for the state and for our potential resources."

Sexton says the state negotiated well by accepting the bonus bid of 15-cents a ton, which is three times the appraised value.

We received a press release from the group Northern Rockies Rising Tide, which states the "five activists" were arrested are members of the group.

The group states that "the activists staged a sit in as the board motioned to start the vote on the lease as they chanted 'you're not listening! Hands off Otter Creek!'".


HELENA - Five protesters briefly shut down a meeting of the Montana Land Board in Helena as the panel prepared to vote on the sale of a half-billion ton reserve of state-owned coal.

After Secretary of State Linda McCulloch moved to approve the sale Thursday morning, the protesters sat down and locked arms in front of the board members at a meeting room in the state Capitol.

They protesters began chanting, "Hands off Otter Creek, you're not listening."

The meeting was halted for approximately 45 minutes until police led the protesters away in handcuffs.

Police say they were taken to jail on an initial charge of disorderly conduct.

Arch Coal has offered an $86 million upfront payment plus royalties for the rights to mine the state's Otter Creek coal tracts.

The Land Board voted 3-2 to approve Otter Creek coal leases.

We received a press release from the group Northern Rockies Rising Tide, which states the "five activists" were arrested are members of the group.

The group states that "the activists staged a sit in as the board motioned to start the vote on the lease as they chanted 'you're not listening! Hands off Otter Creek!'".


(first report)

HELENA - The Montana Land Board meeting in Helena was disrupted by protesters on Thursday morning.

The five protesters started chanting and staged a "sit in" and Governor Brian Schweitzer then called a recess as police escorted Land Board members out..

The protesters, who are believed to be from Missoula, were taken to the Helena police station and are going to charged with disorderly conduct.

The meeting resumed shortly after the disturbance and the Land Board voted 3-2 to approve Otter Creek coal leases over protesters objections. Governor Schweitzer defended the revenue from the deal.

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