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Railroad Runaround

UPDATE March 10: More confusion, FWP meeting on Tongue River Railroad easement canceled

“There seems to be an uneven distribution of information,” [FWP Commissioner Ron] Moody said Wednesday. “We are isolated and all we know is what the department tells us in terms of what’s going on, that they’re working on a deal and negotiating an easement.”

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I don’t really know much more than you do, but it appears that there is going to be a hastily-called meeting of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission on March 16th in Helena to discuss the Tongue River Railroad easement through the Miles City fish hatchery. The Commission initially decided to not meet in March because there just wasn’t enough business to warrant the meeting. Abruptly last Wednesday, FWP Chief, Joe Maurier decided that something needs to be done immediately about the railroad easement and called for a meeting.

Far be it from me to intimate that FWP would do anything less than forthright, but it seems that calling an unscheduled meeting in Helena in the middle of calving season when they know that most of the ranchers involved probably won’t be able to travel to attend feels just a tad shady. Maurier called the meeting because he said he is anxious to get the Railroad matter settled. The announcement took all the commission members by surprise.

“We had agreed not to have the meeting in March because there wasn’t enough business to do to justify the expense of bringing everyone together,” Commissioner Ron Moody of Lewistown said on Friday. “Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, I get a message from the department saying they wanted to organize a meeting this month instead. The main reason cited was to do something or discuss the Tongue River Railroad in Miles City. That’s all the information I have.”

I think most of you are familiar with the Tongue River Railroad and Otter Creek coal issues so I don’t want to go back over it all again, but I suppose we have to give a bit of background on the easement. The Tongue River Railroad Company has been trying to build it’s 150-mile railroad to nowhere for about 30 years, but they had nothing to haul and there was strong opposition to destroying the scenic and historic Tongue River Valley for no reason. Last year, the State Land Board was bought for $59 million to lease the Otter Creek coal tracts to Arch Minerals. Finally, the railroad had justification to exist. In 2007, the federal Surface Transportation Board had authorized TRRCo. to cross the Miles City Hatchery grounds. The hatchery raises endangered pallid sturgeon so, there was concern about having a working rail yard next to the raceways. In 2009 the FWP Commission declined to grant the easement “for now”, but then there was no Otter Creek coal lease. Now, Governor “Coal Cowboy” Schweitzer is pushing to get as much revenue from the Otter Creek tracts as possible.

The options now are to grant the easement (preferred by Maurier) or decline the easement and face possible court action and/or condemnation proceedings. A lot has changed since 2007 and now Arch Minerals has plans to ship millions of tons of poor-quality coal from its Otter Creek leases to China through a planned mega-port on the Columbia River because they can’t sell it in the U.S.

Should we or shouldn’t we grant the easement? I really think that decision has already been made and it is just up to the commission to give it’s blessing. “FWP has negotiated and recommends approval of the Agreement as it affects the Miles City Hatchery.” But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t be incensed at the decision and the way it is being handled. Easements with at least 50% of the landowners along the route are needed before the railroad easement can go forward. At this point, there have been no easements procured so, there is no real rush to get the easement through the hatchery at this time. The feeling is that once the hatchery easement is in place that will provide the stick needed to whip the landowners into agreement.

Email the FWP Commission at fwpcomm@mt.gov Or find your local commissioner on the FWP website and let them know that this is really a bad idea that needs as much public discussion as possible before we decide to make a sacrifice area of the entire Tongue River Valley for the sake of money.

[FWP Commissioner Ron] Moody said they feel like the decision really is out of their hands, and all they’re being asked to do is “rubber stamp” an easement that all five commissioners have questioned.

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