Our family, the Charters, have ranched in the Bull Mountains, just North of Billings, Montana, for five generations. We grew up in these rugged hills and rolling grasslands raising our children and grandchildren. We have spread the ashes of our loved ones here. We are rooted here. This is our home.
Sadly, we are under threat of being uprooted by a coal company with a long history of criminal misdeeds. It will take significant legal resources for us to fight to preserve our family legacy, and that’s why we’re seeking support from those who value family ranching and the stewardship of our shared air, land, water, and climate. This is our story. It’s painful, but it’s important that we tell it not just for the sake of our livelihood, but because others in this area are under threat, too.
We have ranched alongside coal production for generations. It’s always been a challenge because coal mining inherently causes damage to the land and water we depend on for our cattle and livelihood. Until now, we’ve always found a way to make it work.
We try to be honest and forthright. We work to maintain respectful relationships with the workers earning a living for their families. When dealing with corporate executives, we stand up for our rights, uphold our values, and do our best to protect our community without undercutting the livelihoods of others. Managing these relationships takes work and patience. It requires civility and understanding others’ perspectives. Fourteen years ago, Signal Peak Energy moved into our community. Soon after that, civility and respect were shoved aside, and it’s only gotten worse since.
Signal Peak is the operator of the Bull Mountain Mine No. 1, Montana’s only underground coal mine. Headlines about Signal Peak’s repeated criminal convictions, investigations, and the wild details involved are plentiful. They sound sensational and would be hard to believe if not for the facts detailed in criminal court proceedings and law enforcement reports.
In January, Signal Peak was sentenced in federal criminal court to a $1 million fine and three years’ probation after pleading guilty to multiple counts of health and safety violations. One violation involved pumping toxic waste slurry into the ground, threatening the safety of our community’s water sources.
A Department of Justice statement about the investigation says, “….mine managers lied about the mine’s expenses, its safety record, and other matters, which… resulted in individual criminal convictions and charges for nine persons, including former mine vice presidents and their associates, on crimes ranging from embezzlement, tax evasion and bank fraud to money laundering, drugs and firearms violations.”
This toxic culture has extended to the treatment of landowners who ranch over the mine. Signal Peak is trying to drive us off our land by tearing out spring developments and water storage facilities, cutting us off from water sources we have the legal right to use, and by forcing us into endless legal cases, one of which was ruled harassment to landowners by the District Court in Billings.
Now Signal Peak is canceling long-term leases we’ve held for over 65 years, claiming they can kick us off our own deeded land and block access for the next eight years, imperiling our ranching operations and our livelihoods. We were supposed to vacate our deeded land on September 1st, and are supposed to leave our leased land by January 25th.
Without landowners like us there to hold them accountable, Signal Peak has little incentive to clean up their mess and restore the water their mining has damaged. Any modest reclamation efforts they pursue years later to recoup financial bonding will be too little too late for the fragile watershed and ecosystem of this region. We are also deeply concerned because mining activity is only getting closer to the parts of the Bull Mountains where more of our friends and neighbors live. We do not want to see Signal Peak attempt to do what they are doing to us to others.
When the coal companies came, they told us that coal and cows could coexist, especially with an underground mine. While it’s not easy to ranch above a coal mine, we have made it work so far, and our neighbors have as well. Signal Peak need not remove us, but they have chosen to treat the Bull Mountains and the people that live there as disposable. This company is only interested in extracting wealth from the land and people here.
We believe that the Bull Mountains are worth protecting. Family agriculture, the people who live in the Bulls, and the state of Montana are worth protecting. That is why we are choosing to stand up and work with attorneys to defend our contract and leases, so that we can remain in the Bull Mountains and future generations can remain here.
Fighting a big corporation like Signal Peak is not going to be easy. It’s going to be expensive. But we are working with an attorney who has defeated Signal Peak in the past, and we believe in him. Asking for money is never easy, but to pay for legal expertise we will need to raise over $60,000. We’re asking for your support, and we thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts who can lend a hand as we stand up for our rights and the values that have made Montana such a special place to raise generations of our family.
Signal Peak has not simply tried to force us out, but it has failed to offer anything approaching fair compensation for our land. If we were to submit to their inadequate offer for this land we’ve worked for generations, we wouldn’t receive enough compensation to continue ranching elsewhere. Between the cuts to our finances from Signal Peak’s actions over the years and the state of the consolidation of our cattle markets, our ranching operations has been squeezed.
With that in mind, it’s important for us to be honest with you (and honest with ourselves). If Signal Peak attempted to settle and offer us a fair price for our land that gave us the ability to ranch elsewhere, we would have to take it. We would hate to lose the land we’ve held for generations, but we’d hate to lose the ability to ranch altogether even more. Therefore, if we do not use all of the money that is donated to us through this fundraiser, we will donate it to Northern Plains Resource Council's work protecting coal-impacted communities. You can rest assured, however, that even if we are forced to ranch somewhere else, we will never stop fighting for the Bull Mountains, no matter where we are.
We appreciate your support for family ranching and your support for justice in the Bull mountains.