BILLINGS – A billionaire candy magnate has gone from staunchly opposing a Montana railroad that would have cut through his massive ranch to buying a one-third share of it, shielding his property while potentially opening the state’s vast coal fields to mining for export to Asia.
Forrest Mars Jr., former chief executive of candy company Mars Inc., previously helped bankroll opposition to the Tongue River Railroad from landowners and conservationists.
By buying into the proposed line, Mars said in a letter to his former allies in the fight against the railroad that he was blocking a section that would have stretched approximately 45 miles between the towns of Birney and Decker, which is near the Wyoming border.
That segment would have passed for more than 7 miles through Mars’ 82,000-acre ranch.
Financial terms have not been disclosed, but the substance of the deal was outlined in a letter from Mars and documents filed with the federal Surface Transportation Board.
BNSF Railway and Arch Coal Inc. also bought one-third shares of the railway. Arch has leased more than a billion tons of coal near the proposed route from the state of Montana and Texas-based Great Northern Properties.
Arch plans to ship much of the fuel to Asia.
“The agreement with BNSF and Arch is the best of both worlds,” Mars wrote in the letter to Ed Gulick, chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a Billings-based conservation group. “This agreement is a way to protect as much of the Tongue River as possible, impinge upon as few landowners as possible and create much-needed jobs in the area.”
Two years ago, in his days as one of the Tongue River Railroad’s chief opponents, Mars hired a lobbyist to press the state Legislature to change Montana’s eminent domain law so it would be harder to build the line.
Mark Fix, a rancher along the river and one of the most vocal opponents of the railway, said he was surprised to learn of the move by Mars after the billionaire’s years of opposition to the line.
“It’s kind of sad to feel like a neighbor basically sold you down the river,” Fix said. “The rest of us wish we had enough money and so we could do that too. I wish I could buy part of the railroad and keep it off my ranch, but that’s not going to happen.”
The remaining stretch of railway between Birney and Miles City would cut through Fix’s property. He worries construction of the line will cause silt to build up in the river and ruin his irrigation water.
The documents filed with the Surface Transportation Board list Arch Coal, BNSF Railway and a “non-rail private investment entity” as buying one-third of the stock each.
With Mars’ involvement, the railway and mining company appear to “have turned an opponent into a proponent,” said railroad developer Mike Gustafson of Billings, who worked on the project for more than two decades.
Gustafson said he was unaware when the company’s stock was sold July 1 that Mars was involved in the deal. He declined to reveal the value of the transaction. He said he would stay involved in the project “providing assistance to the parties” but offered no specifics.
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