Balancing Coal Against Existing Jobs


Coal excavation offers a great chance to make a lot of money for affected ranch owners. However, construction of the railways through the coal areas will severely diminish the value of many farm and ranch operations. Cutting properties in half will create a far different economic unit than what existed prior to the proposed acquisitions.

While one recognizes the needs to be balanced, one should also recognize that the history and economic structure in the area is premised upon successful ranching. Simply paying just compensation realistically may not be enough.

They could probably go on undisturbed for 100 years more if the earth under the pastures weren’t laced with coal. A consortium led by BNSF Railway Co. wants to build a rail line to carry some of that coal to market. Nine miles of it would run through the McRae ranch.

The McRaes and some of their neighbors say the Tongue River Railroad, and a proposed coal mine at Otter Creek, puts southeast Montana and ranchers like them at risk for an energy plan that mainly benefits Asia.

“It’s going to cross our land, wreak havoc with our water, go through our towns,” Clint McRae said recently, sitting in the rustic wood house his father built, its hearth hewn from local stone.

The Montana ranchers are in the minority. For many others, coal has been one of the few good things to come out of a region so barren it sent many early homesteaders fleeing to greener lands farther west.