|The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield. All content ©
Native Sun News.
Former Governor Brian Schweitzer
Otter Creek Coal Tracts near Northern Cheyenne slated for development
By Clara Caufield
A Cheyenne Voice
LAME DEER, Mont. — The Northern Cheyenne Reservation is surrounded on three sides by area coal development, including the Decker Mines (east) , Crow mines (south) and the Rosebud Mine in Colstrip (west). Proposed mining in the Ashland area (north) – Otter Creek – slated to be one of the largest surface coal mines in North America, would complete the circle.
Small business owners in Ashland (population of approximately 800), a small border town just across the Tongue River from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation struggle; a slow economy challenges those operating in the “nip and tuck” mode. The proposed Otter Creek Mine to be developed near Ashland could be a shot-in-the-arm for this small rural community. But at least one small business owner said “I don’t think that’s really going to happen. At least not in time to save me.” (She was right, having since closed the doors of her small café and bar, the Justus Inn.)
Many state and tribal leaders do however believe it will happen, saying that that the potential development of the Otter Creek Coal Reserves could be one of the most significant natural resource developments to hit southeastern Montana. The potential mine would employ several hundred workers, services will be required and the spin-off effect of the investment could be a sorely needed stimulus.
Many local people wonder about the status of Otter Creek coal development asking: When are they going to start hiring people and mining coal at Otter Creek? What’s the Tribe getting out of the deal? How did the Tribe get involved? Folks in Ashland, like the Tongue River Community Development Council ask how they can prepare for ask for the impacts of housing, health and emergency services, law and order etc. And some, Cheyenne and non-Indian alike in the area continue to steadfastly oppose any development including the proposed Tongue River Railway, necessary to transport the coal to markets, yet to be finalized.
“Otter Creek Coal Development is the biggest, fastest horse in the State and I’m riding it,” said former Governor Brian Schweitzer who spearheaded the effort to gain State approval of coal leases for Arch Coal several years ago. “We want to dispel any notions that Otter Creek will not happen,” he continued. “The State of Montana already has eighty-five million from Otter Creek investors in the Bank. People don’t put this kind of money on a horse unless they know it’s going to be a winner.”
The Governor chairs the State Land Board consisting of the five top State officials who decide on use of Montana Public Lands, including Otter Creek. Other officials are the Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction, State Auditor; and Secretary of State. In 2010, The Land Board voted to approve the leasing of Otter Creek Coal Reserves to Arch Coal. But, before they did that, they required an Otter Creek Settlement Agreement between the State of Montana, Great Northern Properties (owner of half of the Otter Creek Coal Resources) and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe paving the way for Otter Creek Development according to Schweitzer. The Otter Creek Agreement with Northern Cheyenne is similar to previous agreements between the Tribe and developers of Colstrip coal.
“I knew the Cheyenne were wary of Otter Creek development for many years,” he said, “But, when the Cheyenne position changed under the leadership of President Spang and the Tribal Council, I became a strong advocate for Otter Creek doing what’s best based on the opinion of the leadership at Cheyenne.”
Schweitzer and current MT Governor, Steve Bullock are enthused about the employment opportunities that will be created at the Otter Creek Mine.
“Arch Coal would not have invested without a potential great work force at Northern Cheyenne.” Schweitzer stressed. “It’s getting harder and harder to find a source of young people for a work force, but at Northern Cheyenne there are a lot of people aged 8-22 who want to stay at home, raise a family and stay together. This was a great selling point for Arch Coal. I call it The Cheyenne Bonus.”
According to Schweitzer, the reserves at Otter Creek will last for decades. “All during that time, it will provide a continuing supply of high-paying jobs,” he stressed. ‘Sit at the Tribal Office for about three hours and watch people come and go,” he reflected. “You see young mothers with kids. These kids will get those jobs and raise their family. Cheyenne culture is so valuable, but it costs money. I can see all these generations living well and in the Cheyenne tradition on the Reservation through the opportunities at Otter Creek.”
Still, there are a lot of questions. Those involved in the long process leading to the development of Otter Creek have a pretty good handle on what happened. Arch Coal, the mine developer keeps the Council and State officials updated about current developments and what to expect next. Even with approved State leases, there is a lot of work to be done, permits and planning to complete, administrative and historic preservation hurdles to jump, etc. before Arch can actually start developing the mine, a process which takes years.
Former Tribal President Leroy Spang, who prioritized the Otter Creek deal during his Administration (2009-2012), said “I’m really happy the Governor spearheaded the whole works. We all supported him, so it all turned out good. The Northern Cheyenne need to understand this is good for the workers and all other surrounding communities.”
Representative Duane Ankney, local State Representative who served as Chair of the State Appropriations Committee during the last Legislative session noted, “Like I always say, resource development in southeastern Montana buys shoes for the baby. Otter Creek will provide some good paying jobs for young people on and off the Reservation so they can stay here where they were born, raise families and be self-sufficient. Otter Creek will also generate revenue for impacts, roads, water projects...the list goes on. It is a great opportunity.”
Jim Atchison, Director of the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation explained: “The Otter Creek Coal project is, in my opinion, the single largest development opportunity for Montana that we will see in our lifetime, slated to be one of the largest surface mines in North America. To be continued…
(Clara Caufield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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