By Sandy Compton
The weather has been unseasonably warm, if you haven’t noticed, and I’ve whiled away a few days getting reacquainted with the prairies and island ranges of central Montana. Day before yesterday, I drove from Chinook through the Bears Paw Mountains, crossed Missouri on the Sanford-McClellan Ferry and found a camp in the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. Last night, I stayed at Half Moon Campground on Big Timber Creek in the Crazy Mountains.
At the north edge of the Bears Paw, I visited the site where 143 years ago this week Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to Nelson Miles and O. O. Howard with assurances from both that he and his people would be sent to Lapwai in Idaho. They were sent to Oklahoma, instead. But that’s another story.
In spite of trying to get away from it all, I was reminded through the wonders of technology that this is my week to rant… uh, I mean write… something that might be construed to be social commentary.
So, I first want to remind my readers — both of them — to vote by Nov. 3. I won’t get another chance to harangue you about that, and I urge you to vote sensibly.
I won’t tell you who to vote for, but I will say that some political signs and flags I’ve seen lately seem very oxymoronic — not to mention just plain moronic. Those urging “No More B*** S***” seems insanely contradictory, though it’s still a good idea; particularly no more from the guy whose name is on the flag. If he had cut the B.S. in March and started wearing a mask then, we probably wouldn’t have 200,000-plus folks dead of COVID-19 by now, and might have a clear path nationally through the end game of the pandemic. At least, maybe he recently realized that COVID-19 doesn’t care who you are. Maybe.
Speaking of ruthless billionaire developers, there are some daunting public land questions out here in the semi-wild West. In the Breaks, where there are very few Bureau of Land Management signs (BLM manages the monument), it’s difficult to tell where public land ends and begins, discouraging public use. I know how to read a map, so I figured out a camp, but I was serenaded by cows — in stereo — and surrounded by No Trespassing signs.
When I started into the Crazy Mountains, Forest Service signs led me to believe that after 11 miles of fences and No Trespassing signs, I would drive onto public land. The truth is that after 11 miles, I drove onto USFS-maintained Road No. 197 that runs through private land, the Lazy K Bar Ranch. The 8,500-acre Lazy K Bar was at one time Montana’s largest working dude ranch. It was sold in 2012 to Switchback Ranch LLC, a development company owned by David Leuschen, cofounder of private equity firm Riverstone Holdings.
Switchback also owns inholdings in the Crazies resulting from the every-other-section land deal that Northern Pacific Railroad got from the government in the late 1800s. Switchback has begun developing some of that property around alpine lakes in the Crazies, including flying in excavators and cement mixers. There goes the neighborhood; in which Leuschen doesn’t live. He lives in New York City. Prior to founding Riverstone, he was a partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs. He can’t see Switchback projects from his house.
It’s all very legal, as is the fence being built on both sides of Road No. 197 from the Lazy K Bar gate to the campground. My guess is eight miles of fence costs about $10,000 a mile, but it’s only money. Gotta keep the rabble out somehow.
Meanwhile, “Save The Cowboy” is a movement trying to stop the American Prairie Reserve, an effort to establish a sustainable habitat for bison — and myriad other species — on lands including the Charles M. Russel National Wildlife Refuge, the aforementioned national monument and 400,000 acres of private land acquired for the purpose. A writer representing the cattle industry notes that central Montana communities have said, “No, no, no” to reintroduction of bison, but the bottom line appears to be that big ranches adjoining these spaces don’t want to give up grazing lands that are basically free or ridiculously inexpensive.
My bottom line here is that a larger threat than the American Prairie Reserve to the cowboy — and other everyday Joes and Jills with favorite public spaces — is developers who build third home hideaways for the very wealthy in places like the Crazy Mountains high country. Traditional access to public lands is being blocked in the name of personal profit.
To the current resident of the White House and bigtime developers, “having it all” means having yours, too. Which, in my opinion, is pure-d B*** S***.
Remember to vote before Nov. 3.
Sandy Compton is owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press, on the web at bluecreekpress.com and facebook.com/BlueCreekPress.
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