One Montana environmental group grew from different roots than most of the movement.


The Northern Plains Resource Council was founded by cattle ranchers who opposed coal strip-mining 30 years ago - and today, ranchers and farmers make up about half the 3,000 members.


Moreover, this group's members take the lead over the staff in identifying issues, taking stands and presenting the group's public face.


"The coal people came in and gave us this big spiel about the riches on our land. They wanted to strip-mine. We were told we had no choice," says Anne Charter, remembering the day a coal company first approached her family's ranch in the Bull Mountains in 1971. "We said, 'Baloney.' "


She and her husband, Boyd, and a few other families in the Bull Mountains banded together back then, and reached out to ally with ranchers over the horizon who also faced the coal threat, organizing the Northern Plains Resource Council. The ranchers against coal set up tables at agricultural fairs to spread the word and appeared prominently at the first Earth Day ceremony in Billings, Charter says.


"None of us really knew what to do, so we did what anyone suggested," she says. "We got a sixth-grade class in Billings to write letters about why the Bull Mountains shouldn't be strip-mined, and then (the schoolkids) got thousands of signatures on petitions at the Billings Mall."


The ranchers were instrumental in the passage of Montana's strip-mine reclamation law in 1973. "These people from the conservative ranching community would come to Helena, and the Legislature had to listen to them," recalls Bill Bryan, who helped organize Montana environmental groups in the 1970s.


Then the Northern Plains Resource Council ranchers linked up with people in Appalachia's coal region to work the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act through Congress. Charter and other ranch women traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify about the need for the federal law, which was modeled on Montana's law. "We told the senators our men were all busy with ranching and couldn't come. We absolutely won them over," says Charter, who, at age 88, still lives on her family's ranch.


"That was the strength of Northern Plains, and it still is. It has to come from real situations, by real people. All the decisions are made by the members," Charter says. "Everybody has to take an active part, no matter how small." She laughs. "We do keep the staff real busy."


The staff today has grown to 14 people headquartered in Billings, in the center of ranch country. "Working with Northern Plains, if you're an autocratic person, it's not for you," says executive director Teresa Erickson. "If you like group decision-making, it's for you."


Northern Plains contrasts with traditional rancher organizations, such as the Montana Stockgrowers Association, on issues such as the government's power to take land for mining through eminent domain.


"I don't know how many trips we made to Helena to talk to the Stockgrowers about eminent domain and surface owners' rights (in the 1970s). They snubbed us," recalls Jack Heyneman, a Fishtail rancher and Northern Plains member. "They were so tied with industry."


"The Stockgrowers have more or less considered themselves big business - they side with the big companies," Charter says. "We haven't gotten much help from them."


The group's recent successes include the "Good Neighbor Agreement" a local chapter negotiated last year with the Stillwater Mining Co. (HCN, 7/31/00: Mining out the middleman). It calls for water protection stricter than government standards and a host of other safeguards at Montana's largest active mine, where more than 1,000 people dig palladium and platinum in the Beartooth Mountains.


"We don't take a hard-line position and oppose mines outright," says Erickson. "We try very hard to make the mine operations the best they can be. We think in terms of solutions."


The practical strategy also shows in Northern Plains' reaction to a current push to drill much of the state for coalbed methane. The group settled a lawsuit against the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation on condition the government does a sweeping environmental impact statement before proceeding. That gave the group's members time to study the issue and consult with each other. Last month, the group released its recommendations in a report, Doing It Right, laying out a blueprint for how coalbed methane might be developed with minimum impacts.


"We want hospital-quality mufflers on the compressor stations (to reduce noise), and every road reclaimed, and wastewater treated so salty water doesn't destroy soil," Erickson says, listing a few of the recommendations.


Another Northern Plains Resource Council lawsuit over coalbed methane, against the federal Bureau of Land Management, is still pending. So the group uses a mix of strategies. "If you put all your effort into stopping something and you lose, then you've wasted your effort," Erickson says.


More than coalbed methane is looming; the state government is encouraging energy companies to mine more coal and build more coal-fired power plants - with the biggest proposed coal development smack in the Bull Mountains where the group was born. "I have a feeling we've come full circle," Charter says. "We're right back to where we started in the 1970s."