ROUNDUP (Daily Montanan) – When Signal Peak Energy began the process of kicking Steve Charter and his cows off his own land, they made two mistakes.

First, they didn’t send the notice by certified mail – a ministerial technicality that may delay the inevitable process for another six months.

Secondly, they didn’t really reckon with a wiry old rancher who, like his father, valued the land for something more than the money it could fetch.

He lost his wife to a car accident more than a decade ago, and countless neighbors who have either retired or given up the fight against the twin forces of coal companies or large meatpacking industries, both of which have made it harder to eke out a living not too far from Montana’s largest city.

But with gaping cracks in the land and high plateau aquifers that literally trickle when they used to gush, Charter believes the silence has lasted too long.

The checkerboard problem

The battle between Charter and the various coal companies that have cycled through what is the Bull Mountain Mine in Roundup began nearly a century before he was born. As the West was opened up to land and cash-hungry European settlers, the United States government incentivized the railroads to expand, in part to exploit the vast resource-rich country, and rebuild the nation after the Civil War.

The United States granted large alternating swaths of one-mile square parcels to a railroad company willing to lay track, giving the already powerful railroads huge land holdings in what was then new country to European immigrants. Those “checkerboard” tracts of land dot the maps of western states, with shell companies holding the land for development, profit and the mineral rights.

For decades, ranchers have lived with these parcels being interspersed with private property, while at the same time, leasing the surface rights of those railroad parcels for grazing. The need to run cattle on these parcels often made it imperative for ranchers to work out leasing agreements with large corporations because fencing off every other square of land is impossible, expensive and inefficient.

So most, like Charter, signed long-term lease agreements that not only dictated how ranchers could graze on leased property, but also dictated how they could use their own adjoining land. Charter said that most ranchers agreed to it because there was no other way to make the land usable.

Decades later, the old saying that coal and cows can coexist is a nice afterthought.

A large subsidence crack on the surface of land in the Bull Mountains is likely damage caused by underground coal mining activity (Darrell Ehrlick/Daily Montanan).
A large subsidence crack on the surface of land in the Bull Mountains is likely damage caused by underground coal mining activity (Darrell Ehrlick/Daily Montanan).

Charter has hired an attorney and plans to fight Signal Peak’s effort to kick him off his own deeded land, but without the grazing leases, the future remains uncertain for a family that has been ranching for several generations.

The company has given him notice that they’re cancelling the leases on their land, and he says they’re trying to even shut him off his own property — something they may be able to do because of leasing arrangements dating back to 1990.

Signal Peak was given an opportunity to comment for this story but did not respond to those requests.

Charter said the real trouble may have started when Signal Peak decided to rip out a natural spring-fed well four years ago — the source of water for more than 200 cows.

Charter filed complaints with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which ordered Signal Peak to figure out a way to get more than 25,000 gallons of water per month to Charter’s cows. It could also be that Charter spoke up about fixing the land that was literally coming apart at the coal seams.

Charter understands it’s probably easier to pressure him off the land than to find enough water for 250 animal units. And, making the coal company repair the land pulls resources away from an already beleaguered coal company that has had to fight numerous reports of corporate scandals, including one executive who tried to fake his own abduction. And that doesn’t even factor in a domestic market for coal that has almost completely evaporated.

When the mining started in the 1960s, there was plenty of talk about coal and cows coexisting. Charter said he believed it at one time. Now, he’s uncertain it could happen in a place like Musselshell County.

“It takes work. It takes cooperation And it takes a lot of communication,” Charter said. “What I’ve gone through these past two years, I am not sure that’s possible. You have to have the will to make it work. The hardest part is the water.”

Water’s for fightin’

In the increasingly dry West, the old cowboy saying rings more true with every passing summer day: Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.

Charter admits without enough water, the land isn’t worth a nickel.

For years, he’s relied on the natural high-level aquifers that have watered the cows, which can take as much as 40 gallons per day when it’s hot. When Signal Peak decided the spring he developed wasn’t proper, and ripped it out, Charter remembers begging them not to do it. But a few bulldozers made easy work of the spring, which produced around seven gallons per minute.

After a series of complaints and investigations from the DEQ, it was determined that the water had been improperly removed and Signal Peak would have to truck in water or rebuild the well.

It wound up having to do both because when the well was restored, the water flow had changed, slowing to less than two gallons per minute when the previous logs had shown it produced more than seven.

“They claim that the spring will come back and repair itself. That’s what I hope for,” Charter said. “They may repair themselves, but I am not seeing good signs that will happen.”

Steve Charter points out the problems he’s had dealing with coal companies and water on his land in the Bull Mountains in Musselshell, Montana. (Darrell Ehrlick/Daily Montanan)
Steve Charter points out the problems he’s had dealing with coal companies and water on his land in the Bull Mountains in Musselshell, Montana. (Darrell Ehrlick/Daily Montanan)

Because the well slowed to a near-trickle, Signal Peak was forced to truck in more water, something that is still happening. Charter suspects that underground mining activity hasn’t just put huge cracks from subsidence on the land, but also altered the groundwater, both things the coal company would rather disregard.

“When terrible things happened, I stayed silent,” Charter said. “Not now. I have come to realize, they’ll just cancel you anyway.”

That’s what happened to a neighbor and a friend who ranched right up the road from the mine’s Roundup headquarters. Charter can’t recall the neighbor ever griping, but eventually, the mine gave the neighbor notice that his grazing rights were being terminated.

Charter likely doesn’t have enough land in his other holdings to support ranching the cows, and so he’s faced with the situation just like Kris Kristofferson wrote about in “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Freedom, for Charter, has just meant nothing left to loose.

“We’d sell our souls to the devil I suppose if we could just get a reasonable price,” Charter said. “But I am not going to let them dictate everything.”

Pushed out, but not going away

From a sweeping vista just opposite of the famous Red Butte plateau, which rises about 4,800 feet above the sprawling valley floor, you can see for hundreds of miles. To the south, you can see down to the Pryors and into Wyoming. Billings is hidden by the sandstone cliffs that form the Rims, and it’s hard to tell when you’re looking at the largest city, except for a plume of white smoke rising from one of the refineries on a clear summer day.

Charter can tick off at least eight mountain ranges from the Little Belts to the Castles to the Crazies and the Beartooths. They’re all there.

He marks the months by the smell and colors – the site of the light purple echinacea in spring to the smell of sagebrush and pine trees in the blistering August sun.

And he looks out and ticks off the ranchers, neighbors and lands he’s worked. He keeps an eye on his herd of horses, knows where the cows are ranging, and spends nights staring at an expanse of stars that crowd the summer sky.

That’s why even if he ultimately loses his fight, which will likely be determined by the courts, he may still be – to use an old cowboy term – a burr under the saddle of the coal companies.

“Even if they get us out of here, we’re going to watchdog them,” Charter said. “We’ve made a commitment to the land, and we work it. We’re not going to walk away.

“The only way to lose this battle is to compromise my values and no one gets to control that except for me.”

Montana’s Appalachia

Signal Peak is just another in a long line of owners that have tried taking coal from the ground. Charter remembers fighting against the same forces as a young man nearly 50 years ago when a bunch of “hippies” who believed in Earth Day started teaming with ranchers against large, monolithic coal companies who planned mine-mouth operations that would supply huge coal-fired, electricity producing generators, as in the case of Colstrip.

One of the first lessons he learned is that the coal mine owners were usually several layers removed from the operations through a series of shell corporations.

“That’s so that if they ever go bankrupt along the way, there’s no one left to take responsibility,” Charter said.

Most of the landowners at the time were ranchers, and land men started showing up at their doors, or in Charter’s case, at the door of his parents. They said all the other neighbors had already sold and that they should too, especially because most of the owners had surface, but not mineral rights, a vestige of Montana law that was tailor-crafted by early copper mining barons.

“In Montana, you help neighbors, but you don’t talk business,” Charter said. “Well, they got together and once they started talking, they all thought we had sold out.”

Instead, the ranchers formed a citizens’ property group and demanded concessions and rights.

Since then, some land owners sold out. Others tried to work alongside the mine owners. Charter said even when they had concerns, they tried approaching the mine, hopeful that a bit of kindness would work better. He’s not sure if that tactic ever worked, but he, too, remained silent for a time in hopes that cattle could indeed coexist with coal.

“They had that line about not biting the hand that feeds you, but the only line they ever fed us was a line of crap,” Charter said. “It would have been easier and probably more practical if we’d sold out, but the enforcement, the DEQ in particular, if there weren’t landowners to complain, then there wouldn’t be the enforcement. We’ve demanded the enforcement.”

And that’s the problem, Charter said. Instead of racing to fill rail cars with coal, Signal Peak must also deal with the ranchers.

“They don’t want us to have access to it, and they don’t want to see what they’re doing,” Charter said.

He still talks to a few of the miners and mine employees, but things are becoming strained after years – if not decades – of sharing the land, even if uncomfortably.

“I don’t have anything against the people working here. They’re generally good people,” Charter said. “There are a lot of innocent victims who depend on the revenue to support Roundup, so I get it. They work at the mine. This mine does way more damage than good, but that doesn’t mean anything to guy who needs this job and that’s why we haven’t all asked for it to be shut down. But, we’re drifting over into that camp. I don’t feel completely good about that, but that’s the way it’s become.”

Charter has his attorney, and they’re planning a response, but Signal Peak could start booting him from the leased land and even land he owns anytime this month. The current lease lasts eight more years, but even after then, Charter admits a new lease would have to be negotiated again, possibly with the same mine owners.

Even if Charter was forced to sell, his ranch land sits amidst one of the largest coal operations in the state.

“Who wants to buy ranch land in the middle of a coal mine, especially if there are water problems?” Charter asked.  “If we’re going to have mining, we need strong enforcement.”

The rift that is cracking larger than the parched ground above a coal seam is, in part, to blame for another throwback of law. In addition to a checkerboard pattern of land ownership, Montana is one of the states that separated surface rights from mineral rights. This means a resident may own the land, just not what sits beneath.

“If you own property rights, you don’t really own anything without the mineral rights, too,” Charter said, pausing. “The meek may inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.”

And then there’s the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, an antique among laws, governing much of the mining activity in the West since it was passed in 1872 and signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant.

That likely means that the land his family has held since 1955 may not be worth as much, and certainly not what he would need to replace the expansive territory that borders Yellowstone and Musselshell counties.

He’s not even the first Charter to fight for the land. His father, whom he described as a rough-around-the-edges rancher, once famously told the Consolidated Coal Company, at the time one of the largest mining companies in the country: “You have a lot of money. But even with all your money, you’re $4.64 short of what you need to buy me out.”

‘This is about the love of this land. My family and I, well, we’re attached to it,” Charter said.