Growing up in south central Montana in the 1970’s, I spent countless hours driving Montana’s backroad visiting my Dad’s patients whether they were in Lodge Grass, Forsyth, Roundup, Sidney, or Big Timber. Those experiences created a lasting bond with rural Montana and the Montanans who farm and ranch all across the state. Our family has owned a ranch in Sweet Grass county for many years and the ranch is presently operated by long-time Sweet Grass County resident, Brett Todd. I am a product of the hospitality and kindness shown to me by so many Montanans to my family. I have fond memories of branding, Sunday suppers, and small town cafes all across the State. Growing up, the connection between Montana’s rural areas and its urban areas was strong. Today, it feels like the mutual understanding between rural MT and urban MT is fraying.
I have worked to re-build those relationships and to increase understanding between rural and urban Montana. I have served on the Fish and Wildlife Commission since 2007. During that time, I spearheaded a ground-breaking dialog with Madison Valley ranchers to decrease elk populations while also increasing public hunting opportunity. The process was slow and, at times, very challenging. In the end, we developed a solution that provided relief to the ranchers from crop degradation and opportunity to Montanans hoping to get and elk for the freezer. We succeeded because traditional producers and urban sportsmen worked together. As a Senator, I will across the aisle to ensure that our rural communities and our urban areas work together to craft solutions that create vibrant small towns, bustling cities, and builds bridges between our communities that allow Montana to move forward as a state.
When I first became a commissioner, there was a big push to build the Tongue River Railroad. The railroad was privately owned by private investors from Billings to Washington, D.C. Railroads are able to exercise eminent domain to build their railroad. In the case of the Tongue River Railroad, the private company intended to start the railroad in Miles City and run it all the way to the Otter Creek Coal tracts south and east of Ashland. The first parcel of property they needed to cross is the FWP warm-water hatchery in Miles City. The Department negotiated an easement with the railroad, and then asked the Commission to approve the lease.
The railroad negotiated an easement with the Department because it could not exercise eminent domain on state owned property. The ranchers along the proposed route were very concerned that, if the Commission approved the lease, it would allow the private company use its agreement with the state to compel landowners to agree to lease terms that would irrevocably damage the value of their ranches. In one case, the railroad was proposed to cross a ranch for several miles. However, the railroad only wanted to pay the rancher for the land affected by the rail route. Basically, if the railroad cut the ranch in half for several miles, the railroad only wanted to make lease payments on the strip of land being utilized. Importantly, the railroad did not want to pay for splitting the ranch in two pieces and adversely affecting the value and the functionality of the ranch.
In most negotiations, one party can walk away. However, because the railroad could exercise eminent domain, the ranchers could not walk away from negotiations and had no real leverage in negotiating with the private company. In effect, they were being told – either you sell us an easement, or we will take an easement and let the court determine what we should pay. In an effort to give some leverage to the ranchers, the Commission offered to approve the lease if the railroad would agree to relinquish its power of condemnation through eminent domain. The private company was not willing to give up its power of eminent domain, and the Commission declined to approve the lease. In the words of Clint McRae,
“When a private corporation wanted to force us to accept a railroad across our family’s ranch, Dan Vermillion and the Fish and Wildlife Commission stood with us despite significant political pressure, Dan did not bow to their corporate demands and helped us defeat their effort to seize our land through federal eminent domain… Today, our family ranch stands intact and our children will be able to continue to ranch this land that has been in our family for 130 years.”
As a Montanan, it feels fundamentally unfair that a private company can take your land to build a private railroad that is owned by private investors. I believe that elected officials must stand up for their values and defend their communities. I believe that our elected officials must support our farming and ranching communities. Not only do they raise some of the best beef in the world, but they are also an integral part of Montana, its culture, and its economy. It is critical to elect Montanans that understand the importance of our rural communities and that have the courage to stand up to the powerful forces that want to run roughshod over them. I have shown a willingness to do that. As your State Senator, I will continue to defend Montana’s rural way of life.