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Defining “Public”

“I would oppose any plan that jeopardizes keeping public lands public.”, Greg Gianforte – March 28, 2016

Mr. Gianforte has recently become an advocate for public lands although his definition of “public” and “access” is still somewhat hazy.  In defending his lawsuit against the State of Montana in 2009 over public access along the East Gallatin River his lawyers asked for a decree to “extinguish” the “improperly conveyed Easement and any other claimed easement rights claimed by FWP and/or the public”. So, just how strong is Gianforte’s support of public access? Let’s examine statements by a few of the organizations that Mr. Gianforte supports, through his tax-deductible family foundation.

Heritage Foundation

States have a proven record of managing resources, and already have the regulatory structures in place to do so on federal lands within their boundaries as well. Not only would new management multiply benefits for all Americans, it would also encourage better care of the environment and natural resources by putting them in the hands of people who have an immediate stake in wise management.

Americans For Prosperity

Most Americans acknowledge that the federal government has a role to play in managing our nation’s vast landmass. National parks, military bases, and interstate highways are all federal lands that are understandably under Washington’s control. However, every acre of land that does not fulfill these basic functions of government is an acre that could have been better used by a private citizen or company. Unfortunately, this opportunity cost applies to the vast majority of federal lands that sit idle as an untapped frontier for prosperity.

Property and Environment Research Center

There is nothing inherently national in scope about many federal land management responsibilities. Timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and energy development are carried out responsibly and profitably on state trust lands. Our results provide further evidence to question whether these activities should remain federal responsibilities. States could likely earn much greater revenues managing these activities, but transfer proponents must consider how management practices would have to change in order to generate those revenues under state control.

Importantly, each of these groups is primarily funded by the extreme Libertarian, oil baron Koch Brothers and their wealthy donor network who make no bones about coveting private control of public lands. Gianforte gave the keynote speech at the Koch-backed, AFP “Passion to Profit” workshop in 2015.

2016 Republican Platform

Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control.

Clearly, for such a champion of public lands, Mr. Gianforte supports, and seeks the support, of many organizations and individuals who do not share his enthusiasm for keeping public lands and access in public hands. Experience decrees that what you say matters, but who you fund, who you listen to and who you associate with may be more telling.

More Coggin Poppycock

Here’s the latest attack ad from the oil and gas industry attacking EPA and the Clean Water Act. The letter was published in The Hill blog yesterday and was, of course, signed by our old friend, and Rick Berman employee, Will Coggin.

Richard “Rick” Berman is a longtime Washington, D.C. public relations specialist whose lobbying and consulting firm, Berman and Company, Inc., advocates for special interests and powerful industries. Berman and Co. wages deceptive campaigns against industry foes including labor unions; public-health advocates; and consumer, safety, animal welfare, and environmental groups.

nyc1Coggin is variously identified as “director of research at the Environmental Policy Alliance“, or “director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom”, depending on which targets his corporate overlords want attacked this week. Both groups spend their millions attacking environmental groups and consumer advocate groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Trout Unlimited, the EPA, Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Food & Water Watch, PETA and Mothers Against Drunk Driving and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center for Science in the Public Interest through an extensive network of tacky websites, billboards, print ads and recently, letters to many local newspapers across the western U.S attacking the EPA and opponents of the transfer of public lands to private control.

“Berman makes his money as a corporate hired gun, setting up front groups to denigrate public interest organizations that threaten his clients’ bottom lines,” Melanie Sloan, executive director for the nonprofit watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told HuffPost. “I’m not surprised he’s attacking groups and agencies focused on the environment, given the deep pockets of those interested in paying to stop climate change legislation and regulation.”

If the campaign runs true to form, the Hill letter will soon show up in various newspapers across Montana. Their aim is not to elucidate, but to confuse and confound through a blizzard of deception.

“Our offensive strategy is to shoot the messenger,” admits [Rick] Berman. “Given the activists’ plans to alarm beyond all reason, we’ve got to attack their credibility as spokespersons.” The Center has so aggressively defended junk food, a USA Today editorial said it should rename its site called ConsumerFreedom.com to FatforProfit.com

UPDATE 05/19/2015: Reply from TRCP“These attacks are disingenuous and blatantly hypocritical. The folks behind the Environmental Policy Alliance are lobbyists and PR spinmeisters who are paid by industry to roll back conservation, yet they presume to tell Beltway readers who the real sportsmen are and what we should support.”

Black Decoys

blackdecoyThe latest epistle floating around from the corporate brain trust aimed at stealing your public lands comes from the Property and Environment Research Center out of Bozeman.

We talked about PERC and its mission earlier. This is a deceptive front group doing phony research for Exxon, the Koch brothers and other resource extractors aimed at convincing the public that we are too stupid to manage our own lands and market forces can do a better job. PERC is closely aligned with the American Lands Council and other corporate-funded 501(c) groups. Along with PR guru and corporate lobbyist Richard Berman and his plethora of front groups like the Green Decoys website and the Environmental Policy Alliance, they have initiated a hard push in the media using seemingly rational reasoning to advance the idea of transfer of public lands to private hands. Many dispatches from the Berman-created Green Decoys front group attacking various conservation groups and signed by “senior research analyst” Will Coggin have raised hackles across western states.

In this latest poison-pen letter, PERC tries to make the somewhat oxymoronic point that restricting access and concentrating use on fewer and fewer public parcels will result in a greater appreciation of our common resources and better stewardship of the few places that we have left. Only through the use of proper “access management”, by which they mean access only for the privileged few and “private land managers”, can we begin to appreciate and properly manage our public resources.

PERC continues earlier Will Coggin/ALC attacks on conservation organizations such as Trout Unlimited and on the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) for promoting increased public access and appreciation of our wild places and thereby limiting the role of timber, mining and drilling companies.  By citing examples of egregious resource damage due to poor management or improper use, they aspire to prove that private management and/or private ownership is the only way to save our wildland resources from decimation and over-use by greedy public sportsmen. Don’t be fooled, their ultimate goal is to shut off all public access to our communal treasures to allow acquisition and rape by their affluent backers.

Access or Profit?

Think the State of Montana is better at managing public lands than the Federal Government? Think again.

The National Wildlife Federation just released a report titled How Could Your Recreational Access Change if Federal Lands were Controlled by the States? The report details differences between state and federal management of public lands.

springprairie2

Spring Prairie then

During the 1890s, Spring Prairie north of Kalispell was a favored stop for wagon and mule trains traveling the Fort Steele Trail. This important trail connected the Mullan Road near Missoula with the Tobacco Plains and the prosperous mining districts in British Columbia. Spring Prairie offered a large spring of clear water as well as plentiful grazing and timber and was an important resting point before the caravans entered the arduous, heavily timbered part of the northward journey.

At least there is plenty of public access

Spring Prairie today: At least there is plenty of public access

By the Enabling Act of 1889, Montana was to be given sections 16 and 36 of every township within it’s borders when it became a state. The lands were to be held in trust by the state for public education. Spring Prairie was part of that bequest. Montana law requires state trust lands to be administrated to “secure the largest measure of legitimate and reasonable advantage to the state.” Today, due to this mandate to maximize revenues from state lands, Spring Prairie is mostly paved over with plans afoot in the near future to fill and pave the spring itself. Phase 4 of the development will put just over $100,000 a year into state coffers.

At statehood, Montana was given 5.9 million acres of school trust land. After selling off around 800,000 acres, today the State Land Board administers about 5.1 million acres. Those lands include 4.7 million acres under 9,000 agreements for crop and range leases throughout the state, 5,301 oil and gas, metalliferous and non-metalliferous mineral, coal, and sand and gravel leases, and 39 coal leases. The state sold 61.4 million board feet of timber from 780,000 acres of state lands in 2014. Since the state owns our riverbeds, Montana also leases 19,000 acres of riverbed and island tracts for oil and gas development. In 2014, Montana sold 4,093 acres of state trust land.

Until 1991, most of the leased lands were accessible only at the whim of the lessor. Today you can buy a State Lands Permit to access most state lands. About 1.3 million acres of Montana’s public lands are “landlocked” that is, they are surrounded by private parcels and not accessible by the public. One example is the section surrounded by Ted Turner’s 22,000-acre Bar None Ranch. Turner Enterprises leases 16,600 acres of public land in Montana. The area is technically open to public access, but the reality is there is no access across the private land unless you pay Mr. Turner’s Montana Hunting Company $14,000 to hunt on the “public” land.

If Montana were to take possession of all the BLM and U.S. Forest Service land in the state, they would gain about 25 million acres on which to maximize profits for the state. In 1999, the Montana State Legislature passed a law exempting many DNRC activities from MEPA compliance for “lease renewals” and certain other activities associated with trust lands management. If these lands were managed like state trust lands, much of your current access would be lost, or restricted. Much of the new land would necessarily have to be sold to the highest bidder to maximize profit for the state. You would have to buy a permit for lands you can now access for free. Some lands you can now access would be leased for commercial activities which would impair public access and impact wildland values. Virtually every decision on management of public lands would be based on what is best for the state revenue stream and not on what is best for the physical streams, forests and recreational values.

Spring Prairie has become an asphalt wasteland under state management to provide a modest boost to state coffers. Little oversight from overworked and understaffed state agencies would result in much the same fate for many currently open public lands in Montana if the current iteration of the Sagebrush Rebellion is allowed to move forward with its profit-fueled ,corporate vision for public lands in our state.

 

Perils of Proposing Public Parcel Plunder

Todd Tanner published a great piece in High Country News on the menace of recent Congressional legislation to promote the transfer and sale of public lands.

This is about power, plunder and money.  It’s about water, which is the source of all that power here in the West. And it’s about the fact that an awful lot of folks back in Washington want to privatize our federal lands.

Montana writer Hal Herring called the vote “an attempt to re-create our country, to vanquish forever the notion that we citizens can hold anything in common. It’s a new paradigm, where the majority of Americans are landless subjects with little recourse in the courts or political process.”

It’s a great piece and needs to be distributed widely, but it’s in another Western publication. That’s fine, and we need to see more of it, but we’re pretty much preaching to the choir. Westerners, by a wide margin oppose transferring our public lands to the states. I say we hit ’em where they live.

The deluge of letters we have seen recently supporting land transfer have all come, mainly, from a single source. The Washington, D.C. PR firm of Berman & Company, funded mostly by oil and gas money. The letters are written by Berman employee Will Coggin deceptively attacking western conservation organizations and promoting the sale of public lands to the highest bidder. So, maybe we should let Washington know just how we, as westerners, feel about the corporate smear campaign. I say, we of the Western persuasion, and especially members of slandered groups like Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, should blitz the D.C. newspapers with letters supporting our public lands and condemning corporate-funded, dark money propaganda.

I chose the Washington Post for my missive, but you could choose any popular D.C. publication. For the Post, you can send a letter to letters@washpost.com  Here are the rules:

What are the guidelines for letter submissions?
We prefer letters that are fewer than 200 words and take as their starting point an article or other item appearing in The Post. They may not have been submitted to, posted to or published by any other media. They must include the writer’s full name — anonymous letters and letters written under pseudonyms will not be considered. For verification purposes, they must also include the writer’s home address, e-mail address and telephone numbers. Writers should disclose any personal or financial interest in the subject matter of their letters. If sending e-mail, please put the text of the letter in the body and do not send attachments — they will not be read.

As an example, here’s my letter to the Post.

We, out here in the square states, continue to see a smooth, corporate-funded attack on our public lands. Frequent letters in our newspapers, written by corporate-funded shills and lobbyists from Washington D.C. PR firms, advocate for the transfer and sale of our communal property. We are drowning in the drool of energy, mining and timber companies who can’t wait to get their hands on our public resources and lock out all of us bumpkins who see the true value of lands held in common with every citizen of our country.

We see unwarranted attacks on conservation organizations such a Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who have done more to promote and protect our shared lands than all the lobbyists, lawyers and CEOs in D.C. combined. Our public lands provide clean air, clean water, hunting, fishing and recreation to all the good folks of our country. They are not simply assets on a spreadsheet to be pillaged at will.

I would like to suggest that you folks keep your corporate salivation on your side of the Potomac and quit exporting hate speech to the West. We will do whatever it takes to protect these lands for the good of all the citizens of our republic and you can rest assured that when you next decide to visit our nation’s great parks and public lands they will still be open, accessible to all, and they will be here waiting for you.

501 Don’t See Me

A rhetorical war is being quietly waged over the remaining natural resources in the American West. We have recently seen the battles play out in Congress, as they pass funding to help transfer federal lands to states and, of course, we have seen it in the legislative bodies of several western states, including Montana, where proposed bills to transfer federal lands to state control have been met with anger and vitriol by citizens groups.

The weapon of choice for both sides in this conflict for our public resources is the 501(c) section of the United States Internal Revenue Code. As originally conceived, section 501(c) allowed for the formation of not-for-profit advocacy organizations. It reduced the tax burden on cash-strapped citizens groups and allowed for non-disclosure of the names of donors to shield community-minded contributors from constant pleas for money from similar organizations.

In 2010, everything changed due to the decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case in the U.S. Supreme Court. In its decision in the Citizens United case, the Court held that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation. That decision released corporate America to enter the public discourse with a vengeance never seen before and to do so anonymously. They could now use the vast financial resources of their stockholders to influence and change public policy to protect and enhance corporate profits.

The number of nonprofit organizations soared, growing by more than 30% between 2003 and 2013 and further, spending by groups who no longer had to disclose their funding sources grew exponentially.

nondisclosure

Center for Responsive Politics

 

 

Now, companies have been granted a way to pour unlimited money into causes that would disproportionately benefit their bottom line and they could do so using so called, “Dark Money” because they no longer have to reveal that funding for their positions came from the various business interests who would most benefit from changes in state and national policy.

501(c) groups funded by corporate profits make anonymous accusations against 501(c) environmental and groups who, likewise, don’t release their funding sources. In one of the more recent examples we see letters in local newspapers from someone named “Will Coggin”, reputed to be “director of research for the Environmental Policy Alliance.” In a letter published April 2 in the Helena Independent Record, and in other Montana papers, Mr. Coggins makes outrageous claims against some of the most popular environmental groups in Montana, accusing groups like Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership of “camouflaging their [anti-gun, anti-energy] efforts by manipulating the more politically conservative sportsmen community” and of being “Out-of-state radical environmentalists”.

One of the main attacks advocating for land transfer has been that states are more efficient in managing public lands because they make more money on their holdings. I guess I would agree that states charge more for use of public resources, but I would argue that there are many good reasons and advantages for the disparity. In the case of Montana, state law requires that state trust lands provide the maximum revenue possible. That is not true of federal holdings. In fact, in many cases federal agencies have kept lease and sale costs on their resources below market value for good reason. Federal timber has been sold below cost to keep lumber prices down during hard times. Lower prices are also used to subsidize local timber and mining companies to retain local jobs. When ranchers graze cattle on federal lands at lower prices, the cost for your hamburger remains affordable. Yes, we could charge more for the use of our resources, and in some cases we should, but in keeping prices affordable for rural folks, we keep our rural economies viable. So yes, the Feds could charge more as do most state agencies, but that means only an increase in commodity prices for us all and higher profits for producers.

Will Coggin is informed on these issues, but he has a corporate-driven agenda to promote. Camouflage would be something with which Mr. Coggin is intimately familiar. He, of course, doesn’t reveal that he is an employee of one of Washington D.C.s largest corporate lobbying firms headed by Richard Berman (dubbed “Dr. Evil” by CBS 60 Minutes). Berman has become a favorite hit man hired by corporations wanting to influence public policy without seeming to be connected to the effort. Berman has established hundreds of web sites and foundations, usually using 501(c)(3) organizational ambiguity, to anonymously flog corporate ambitions. In fact, the Environmental Policy Alliance, by which Mr. Coggin claims to be employed, is in fact a PR front group established by Berman & Co. Berman’s groups are funded by foundations created by business interests. The purposely named EPA claims to be a project of the “Center for Organizational Research & Education”, which itself morphed last year from the Berman-created “Center for Consumer Freedom” which was set up by Rick Berman to attack PETA and food safety advocates on behalf of restaurant interests.

It’s extremely easy to get lost trying to follow this bewildering web of fake advocacy groups and nonprofit foundations, but of course, that’s really the point. Let’s go just a bit further. The transfer of federal lands into state hands is being advocated primarily by oil, gas, timber and mining interests to make it easier for them to get their hands on our natural resources. And, of course, these same interests are large contributors to nonprofit “foundations” set up by Mr. Berman. In attacking environmental groups for attempting to block the transfer, Mr. Coggin cites “research” done by the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, MT, a 501(c)(3) center funded primarily by Koch Industries and ExxonMobil and advocating “free-market environmentalism”. PERC has ties to the American Lands Council (501(c)), which is one of the primary movers behind the push to transfer federal lands to the states as well as the Koch/Exxon/BP-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (501(c)) which writes model laws, including land transfer bills, and “trains” state legislators in corporate objectives. The Coggin/PERC/Berman/Koch/ conglomerate has spent billions of your tax, investment and pension funds to promote an idea that has no chance of moving forward.

This is not about control by the state, it is about control of the state and easier access by corporations. It’s not about your property rights, but the rights of TransCanada to take your land for their profit, the rights of ExxonMobil to drill on your land, or the right of mining companies to pollute your streams.

In Montana, we have a hard-learned history with corporate control of our state. At the turn of the 20th century the Anaconda Copper Company controlled ¾ of the jobs in our state and most of our natural resources. Anaconda regularly bought and sold state legislators and pillaged our communal resources at will. The people of Montana learned that lesson once and we won’t go back.

Same song, Seventh verse

irrigationline“The bill will ratify a settlement quantifying the water rights of the Tribe and providing for their development in a manner that avoids harm to their neighbors It provides Federal funds necessary for water supply facilities and Tribal economic development, and defines the Federal role in implementing the settlement. This Settlement bill has the full support of the Tribe, the State of Montana, the Administration and the water users who farm and ranch on streams shared with the Reservation. The bill will effectuate a settlement that is a textbook example of how State, Tribal, and Federal governments can work together to resolve differences in a way that meets the concerns of all. It is also a settlement that reflects the effectiveness of Tribal and non-Tribal water users in working together in good will and good faith and with respect for each other’s needs and concerns.”

Sound familiar? This is a quote from The Honorable Rick Hill in the Congressional Record for Feb. 23, 1999 on introduction of the Chippewa Cree Tribe Reserved Water Rights Settlement Act.

Upon introduction of the Rocky Boy Settlement and Compact in the Senate in 1999, Conrad Burns announced the Congressional findings:

By reaching an out of court settlement, the parties will – once this package is implemented – go to the state water court and ask that all pending litigation involving claims by the Tribe, and by the United States on behalf of the Tribe, be dropped. The quantification of the Tribe’s water right will also clearly benefit upstream and downstream users of water in the effected drainage, including the Big Sandy and Beaver Creek as well as the Milk River. These other users will be able to plan for their future because they will know precisely how much water the Chippewa Cree Tribe is entitled to.

Then Governor Marc Racicot praised the Rocky Boy Compact saying:

The settlement of reserved water rights claims within the State of Montana is of utmost importance to the State… The Rocky Boy’s Compact provides for the development of much needed water resources on the Reservation, while at the same time protecting existing water development, adjacent to, and downstream from the Reservation. The federal funding for development will help alleviate some of the very dire needs of Montana citizens who are Tribal members living on the Reservation.

This week in a opinion piece published in several Montana newspapers, former Governor Racicot again reiterated his support for negotiated settlement as the best way to resolve tribal reserved water rights issues including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact.

As a former governor and attorney general, I know that the process of settling tribal water rights is difficult and challenging. But, I also have no doubt that failing to do so will not only be exponentially more costly for Montana taxpayers and the tribes. It will also continue to be a source of stress and strain to our communities and relationships as well. I strongly and respectfully encourage our legislators to approve the water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana.

The CSKT Compact is the last of seven water rights settlements for Indian tribes in Montana to be negotiated between the Tribes, the State and the Federal Government. All of those agreements provided state and federal funds to improve water delivery infrastructure on the reservations. All of the agreements involved, to some extent, off-reservation and downstream water. Since the CSKT Reservation contains, by far the most water of any Montana reservation the current agreement may be a bit further reaching, but it is also, by far, the best deal for the State of Montana, the Federal Government and for the CSKT. Failure of this final negotiated agreement due to bigotry and fear will certainly be “exponentially more costly for Montana taxpayers and the tribes.”

Absolute Jurisdiction and Control of the Congress

Montana: Brought to you by Koch Industries

Montana: Brought to you by Koch Industries

That the people inhabiting said proposed States do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof, and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indian or Indian tribes; and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States, and said Indian lands shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the Congress of the United States;   Enabling Act of 1889 creating the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington

In order to “extinguish” federal ownership of public lands in Montana, every hunter, angler, hiker, mountain biker, logger, birdwatcher and tourist in these United States who enjoys spending long summer days in Montana’s wild places would have to agree that the Montana Legislature, over which they have no control, would do a better job of managing their recreational lands than the federal government and they would have to let their elected representatives know that they are okay with more logging, mining and pollution of their favorite places. IMG_2593.JPG

These public lands don’t belong only to Montana politicians. They belong to every citizen of the country. Senator Jennifer Fielder (R) of Thompson Falls has proposed more than seven bills in the Montana Legislature to facilitate transfer of these lands to her and her cronies, Americans For Prosperity, ALEC, the Koch Brothers, big oil and mining companies. No matter how much these folks would prefer to have our public treasures in private hands, it ain’t going to happen. We already tried giving control of our natural resources to the Ananconda Copper Company  and that didn’t work out so well. Let’s quit spending our limited tax money and the valuable resources of the Montana Legislature to fiddle with bills that don’t have a prayer of passing through Congress and work on some real-world legislation that can improve the lives of real Montanans.

County Conniving Concerning the CSKT Compact

Irrigation-Canal-Jocko-DistrictSo, let’s talk about the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact. This session of the Montana Legislature will take up ratification of the Compact. The last session failed to ratify the negotiated settlement and extended the term of the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission (RWCC) to make a few changes to the agreement.

Montana, the CSKT and the Federal Government have been negotiating this legal settlement for more than 20 years to quantify the CSKT reserved water rights. The Commission successfully negotiated 17 other agreements for federally reserved water rights including six water compacts with Indian tribes within the state. Reserved water rights are legally created with the creation of any federal reserve, such as an Indian reservation, national forest, national wildlife refuge, national monument, etc. There are two ways to quantify these reserved water rights, through costly and time-consuming court actions, or through negotiated agreements between the parties. In 1979, the State of Montana chose to create the RWCC to negotiate for the state all reserved water rights claims. The negotiated agreements settle for all time legitimate and legal water rights claims. All of these claims have been successfully negotiated with little or no opposition.

This is the last chance we have to reach an equitable negotiated agreement. Under state law, if this Compact is not ratified prior to June 30, 2015, the Tribes have no alternative but to attempt to quantify their legal water rights through the court system. This solution will cost water users across Montana millions of dollars defending their legitimate water rights and will take decades to reach a conclusion. The Tribes will likely gain many more, and stricter rights to Montana water through lawsuits, but would prefer the simpler and cheaper negotiated agreement they have spent many years to reach.

There have been many letters in the local press supporting and objecting to the ratification of the CSKT Compact. Most of the objections offer very little, if any, legal challenge to the Compact, but rather offer claims that seem to be based in biased opinion. The Flathead County Commission recently sent a letter to Governor Bullock objecting to the Compact. The letter was mostly written by Commissioner Phil Mitchell with the help of a supposedly anonymous lawyer. The letter was approved and sent by two of the commissioners with no public input. The commission letter makes virtually no sense and offers insubstantial arguments against the agreement. This week, the Governor responded with a memorandum from his legal staff including a point-by-point refutation of the letter from the County Commission. Mitchell, who was the primary architect behind the commission’s letter to the state, told the Beacon that though he hadn’t yet read the governor’s letter, he was going to stand by his opinions about the compact.”

In his response, the Governor told the County Commission that “based on my engagement with this issue over the course of the last two years – that many of your concerns are rooted in significant misunderstandings about the Compact. As the memorandum makes clear, the Compact protects the homes, businesses, and communities of Flathead County.” His reply is a lot more polite than I could have been in response to their delirious comments, but obviously not polite enough to sway crazy people.

In a news story this morning (01/27) on the Governor’s reaction, Mitchell said the HE is drafting another letter and that HE “will reiterate the commissioners continued opposition to the compact as it’s currently written.” This begins to sound more like a personal tiff between Phil Mitchell with his small cadre of crackpot stealth advisors and the Governor, and less and less like legitimate county business. Will this new letter get a public airing and public comment prior to being sent to the Governor’s office? Is Phil Mitchell willing to make changes to his response based on actual facts that have not been many times refuted? Will Mitchell reveal the names of the people who are helping to write his response? Will the county be billed for legal advice silently received by the Commission?

I, for one, personally resent that our elected county officials continue to misrepresent the opinion of the people of Flathead County in order to further their own personal bias. Mitchell is using intentional misinformation and falsehoods to support a position that does not represent the best interests, or opinion of most of the people who pay his salary. And on top of that, his position could cost his constituents a considerable amount in unwarranted legal costs.

 

Yellowstone Pipeline Breach, Redux

PoplarPipe

We don’t yet know the full extent of the latest pipeline breach that spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. The Bridger Pipeline Company is reporting that up to 50,000 gallons of oil spilled into the river. That sounds vaguely like the initial reports of the Exxon spill of 2011. Initial estimates in 2011 stated that 42,000 gallons had spilled. The actual final numbers came in at near 65,000 gallons, or half again the original estimate. Again, as in 2011, officials are saying“We think it was caught pretty quick, and it was shut down,”. Bridger spokesman Bill Salvin says that “Oil has been seen in the river in spots 15 and 25 miles downstream from Glendive. Some of the oil is trapped under ice.”

We don’t yet know the cause of the pipeline breach, although ice conditions on the Yellowstone River are a likely culprit. Federal rules require hazardous pipelines to be buried only four feet below the streambed, much less than likely ice, or high flow scour depths for the Yellowstone. The Silvertip pipeline, from the 2011 spill, was buried only five feet below the river and river scour uncovered and breached that line. Bridger Pipeline Co. said the pipeline was last inspected in 2012 and was “at least” eight feet below the river bed much like reports from the Silvertip pipeline in 2011.

Pipezone

This leads to my concern about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Both the lines breached on the Yellowstone River were older 12-inch pipelines. The Keystone XL will be a 36-inch line. Any breach in the Keystone will make these recent spills seem like a drop in the bucket. The Keystone line will cross both the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers on a route very similar to the route of the Poplar pipeline. Keystone would make 1,904 stream crossings in the U.S. and 389 in Montana. The Keystone XL pipe would carry toxic tar sands oil from Northern Canada. Tar sands oil is much harder to clean up in an aquatic environment than the light crude from the Bakken. Tar sands oil does not float on the surface, but will sink to the bottom of the river making it much harder to even find, let alone clean up.

The Keystone XL will, presumably, be bound by the same federal rules for stream crossings and will be required to only be buried to a depth of four feet at most stream crossings. The Federal Department of Transportation has said that it has no plans to change the four-foot rule.TransCanada has said that it will bury the Keystone line ” 25 feet or more below the riverbed at major river crossings,  What does that mean for the 300+ Montana crossings that are not considered (by TransCanada) to be “major river crossings”? How will we know what the plans are? TransCanada has said it will not release its plan for spill response.  “This is a $5.5 billion piece of pipeline infrastructure. If we detail the exact location of our pipeline route and what we are doing to protect it along with our pump stations, it is not something we want to make available for the public because as you can appreciate not everyone is a supporter of our project.”

So, once again we wait. At the mercy of what the oil company chooses to tell the public. Exxon claims to have spent $135 million on cleanup of the 2011 spill, along with another couple of million in fines and yet the cleanup remains unfinished. The cost to Exxon of these failures and environmental disasters barely makes a dent in their tens of billions in profits. Our pipeline rules were not designed to deal with large pipes full of tar sands crude oil and yet, there are those who think we should proceed full speed ahead because the Keystone XL will create 35 permanent jobs (according to EPA) and the oil companies claim they can move the toxic oil safely. They haven’t done such a good job so far. “Of the 2.4 million gallons of oil, gasoline, propane and other hazardous liquids released [since 1993], less than 300,000 gallons was recovered.” A bit more delay and a little more information will likely prove to be beneficial to us all.