One rancher's 'coal' war: Wally McRae didn't win it all, but he may have won enough

Wally McRae is a rancher. He's not quite six feet tall but is compactly built. His black hair is matted to his head by a Stetson, and he has a shaggy, drooping mustache. He has the look of a man who lives outdoors.

For more than a decade he's been fighting a range war. But in southeastern Montana these days, range wars are fought not over fences and cattle, but over coal.

''In 1966 was the first time I felt any concern about coal development,'' McRae recalls. ''Coal companies were starting to acquire leases, and Montana Power was making noises about reactivating the mine at Colstrip.

''A neighbor and I talked about it,'' he recalls. ''We weren't too apprehensive, but we thought there was a responsibility on the part of the companies and the state to try to reclaim the land. I think that's where most people's concern starts: with what happens to the land.''

At that time Colstrip was a tiny place, a mining town gone dead. Its name probably derived from what was originally done there, for the Northern Pacific had strip-mined coal there to fuel its trains.

While its mine was part of what may be the world's largest coal deposit - the Fort Union formation - its ''water-heavy,'' low-heat coal possessed only one-fourth of the energy potential of Appalachian coal. As a result, large-scale exploitation was deemed uneconomic. In the late 1950s, when its trains converted to diesel fuel, Northern Pacific closed the mine.

But the mine was soon sold to Western Energy Company, the mining subsidiary of Montana Power Company. Montana Power anticipated that its future needs would require coal-fired steam-generating plants, preferably at the source of the coal. By the mid-'60s that company and others were actively positioning themselves to use Rosebud County coal.

One day, McRae caught a core-driller on his Rocker Six Cattle Company ranch. Since, like many ranchers, he does not own all the mineral rights to his land, he had earlier given Peabody Coal Company permission to do some prospecting. But that had been months before - and on the condition that coal men not use his water.

The core-driller had not asked for permission to enter. Furthermore, he had used McRae's reservoir and fouled his summer pasture by dumping oil filters on it.

When confronted, the core-driller said Wally McRae had given him permission to be on the ranch. This assertion angered McRae. On the ranges of Montana, where there still exists an unwritten, Old West code of behavior, business is not done this way. McRae ran the core-driller off his land.

That incident made McRae realize he was in for a battle. He and rancher neighbors who had had similar experiences understood that something had to be done.

''We had a local group,'' McRae recalls. ''Very informal. We carefully did not have officers or regular meeting dates. Several of us would meet at a ball game and say this thing looks like we ought to talk.''

They talked about planning, zoning, problems of hunters coming on their land.

Then Peabody Coal opened its Big Sky mine just south of Colstrip to provide coal to Minnesota Light & Power Company. It became clear that the ranchers' backyards were to be mined for export to distant utilities.

At a stock growers' convention that summer, McRae and his neighbors introduced a resolution asking the Legislature to enact ''stringent strip-mining laws.''

The resolution provoked consternation - and threats. ''State bureaucrats,'' McRae recalls, ''very threateningly said we didn't have the political horsepower to influence the future of coal development.'' Even so, the resolution passed.

And so the battle was joined.

Shortly afterward, Montana Power announced construction at Colstrip of two mine-mouth electric generating plants. Each would produce 350 megawatts of electricity to be sent north and west over huge transmission lines.

What had been just over the horizon was now clearly visible to the ranchers. They organized the Rosebud Protective Association. And with other rancher-groups they formed the Northern Plains Resource Council. It served as their -''central telephone'' and produced the research so necessary to fight the Colstrip plants in all the hearings, lobbying sessions, and court battles that lay ahead.

As chief spokesman for the Rosebud ranchers, Wally McRae joined what became known as the Colstrip Traveling Road Show. He went wherever he could get a hearing to present the ranchers' view.

''Wally was looked on as an object of curiosity in those days,'' recalls Steve Jessen, editor of the Forsyth -Independent, the Rosebud County newspaper. ''The opinion in the county and in Montana was that we needed the plants. Wally was the front man for the agricultural opposition - and even that community was not 100 percent with him.''

The issues seemed to be ''progress and development'' vs. ''agricultural obstructionism.'' But it wasn't that simple. Especially not once the federal government's utilities--inspired ''North Central Power Study'' was published in 1971.

The study proposed that 21 plants like Colstrip be sited in eastern Montana to produce power for the rest of the nation. It gave rise to concern that the federal government intended to sacrifice the whole region.

Not surprisingly, the opposing sides in the Colstrip conflict defined the issues differently.

Looking back, Martin White, the man Montana Power assigned to build Colstrip, sees the rancher opposition as having three causes. ''There was a general confusion about the extent and impacts of development,'' he says. ''There was a fear that the new population would destroy the existing social infrastructure, and a failure to realize that development was for economic stability rather than for the purpose of powering toothbrushes in distant urban areas.''

For the power and mining companies ''development'' was a foregone conclusion, an irreversible trend. Anyone who opposed it seemed motivated merely by misapprehensions.

''If you analyze the antidevelopment stance of the several ranchers who took that posture,'' White continues, ''I think fear of the unknown and a reluctance to address the unknown were impediments to us facing the future together.''

But the ranchers and environmentalists did not regard mining development as necessary or irreversible.

Russ Brown, a Northern Plains Resource Council staff member, insists that the loss of Montana coal would have ''a very negligible domestic energy impact.''

"These companies are looking for position,'' he says, ''for the eventual export of coal resources overseas.''

''We have patriotic members,'' Brown goes on. ''They just have not been convinced that this has anything to do with patriotism or apple pie or Mom.''

"For Wally, the issue was preserving a way of life,'' says a Billings lawyer whose practice is environmentally oriented. And McRae, who is also a poet, confirms this.

''We need our culture,'' says McRae, a third-generation Montanan. ''I wonder if we can have both it and development. And if we can't, I wonder which is the most important. Much of the time Americans are so economically oriented that they will sacrifice almost any value. But how much is enough? How much money is enough? And what are we willing to sacrifice to get it?

''The ranchers felt they were fighting a moral battle - for their existence as ranchers, for a way of life they felt embodied basic values.

The companies, on the other hand, were fighting a battle for the accommodation of interests. And they knew that -political realities and the expenses of litigation and lobbying would eventually tip the decision in their favor.

As, in fact, they did. Despite rancher objections specified in environmental hearings, Colstrip Plants 1 and 2 received the go-ahead for construction. They are now producing electricity.

While they were being built, Montana Power announced the construction at Colstrip of two more mine-mouth generating plants. Plants 3 and 4 were to have twice the generating capacity of the earlier plants. They are now being built. Colstrip, whose population had been less than 100, now has some 8,000 inhabitants.

''Wally's point of view started to make sense when -Montana Power made its proposals for 3 and 4,'' editor Jessen notes.

He adds: ''Wally had an incredible amount of foresight as to the impact of those plants on our life style. What Wally said originally is becoming more and more obvious and true.''

During the days of the Colstrip Traveling Road Show, McRae became a controversial figure in Montana. Some saw him as an obstructionist, a gadfly, a man who put selfish interests ahead of patriotism. ''Some people think I'm irrational,'' he admits.

For others he came to embody the best values of the West. His admirers take pleasure in knowing that the West still produces colorful, obstinate loners, full of cussedness and resolve, who refuse to let ''big guys'' push them off their land.

''Spiritually, Wally is the embodiment of the West,'' the Billings lawyer comments. ''He's a cowboy to the bone. He has all the values cowboys have had in the past. He could sell his ranch and buy apartments all over the world. He doesn't have to get up at 5 a.m. to feed cattle in 20-below weather and still not make any money that year. But he won't sell - because it's not consistent with his ethics.''

Still, having principles and foresight does not always make a man comfortable.

''If I were Wally, I'd be awfully frustrated right now,'' Jessen remarks. ''He's saddled with the job of preserving a life style, and life styles don't seem to be counting for much these days. Even here. It's a hard thing to sell.''

''Everybody lost,'' says McRae about the Colstrip fight, expressing that frustration. ''The ranchers lost. The utilities involved in the plants lost. Everybody lost.''

Jessen takes no such dim view of the outcome. He believes that the coal companies' clash with the ranchers served -community interests.

The Colstrip plants are generally considered, for example, to use the best pollution control equipment available. Land reclamation and revegetation efforts have proved more successful than the ranchers thought possible. Colstrip is not the eyesore that so many other strip-mining towns have become.

Problems still exist, particularly in the area of water use and reclamation. But because of the clash, bridges of communication have been built.

''We don't imply that everything is perfect,'' emphasizes Martin White, now vice-president and general manager of Western Energy. ''We're human, after all, and we've had to learn as we've gone along.''

There's no question in Jessen's mind that Wally McRae played an important role in that learning process. ''Wally kept them honest,'' he says. ''He and the other ranchers have put developers on notice: If you're coming in, you better be prepared to do a good job - or we're not going to get along.''

Even if he is out of the limelight - his rancher neighbor Nick Golder now acts as the Rosebud Protective Association spokesman - McRae still finds people giving him a ''bad time'' about his stance.

''In Bozeman the other night,'' he relates, ''a well-intentioned man came up to me and said: 'You can sell out for a lot of money, can't you? What's your complaint?'

''And I said, 'Well, I guess my complaint is that my ranch is not for sale - and yet people won't believe that.' ''

McRae shakes his head and looks across the dining room table. ''I think it's important,'' he says, ''for somebody sometime to say: 'Don't take this personal, fella. But this item, this body, this article, this ranch, is not for sale.'

''If I can't provide any other service to people, maybe I can show that there are still a few people that cannot be bought.''

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