What a Shame

By Beacon Staff

Last week, after months of rumors, news came that American Prairie Foundation (APF) will buy the so-called South Ranch in Valley County from Page Whitham Land and Cattle, giving the foundation control over another 150,000 acres.
What a shame … but that’s capitalism, right?

Not quite. In case you don’t already know, APF is a land trust established in 2001 by the World Wildlife Fund. Its mission is buy up ranches in order to create a multi-million-acre buffalo park in Northeast Montana, using the C.M. Russell (CMR) refuge as an anchor.

Previously, APF bought 12 ranches in south Phillips County controlling 121,000 mostly-public acres, which has area producers, as County Commissioner Leslie Robinson put it to me, “worried about losing our community.”

It’s obvious why APF sought the South Ranch. I’ve been there, most recently last spring. Southwest of Glasgow in the Larb Hills next to the CMR, at the right times of year it’s just wonderful, an emerald sea of grass. At the wrong times, it can be, um, heck.

Geographically, the South Ranch fits APF’s agenda perfectly, controlling a huge block of BLM land clear from the CMR to the Milk River. Across the Milk north of Hinsdale are the Bitter Creek proposed wilderness and Canada’s Grasslands National Park, which APF hopes to “link” directly with the CMR.

Sadly, it’s equally obvious why APF got the South Ranch. Steve Page felt it necessary to write an open letter explaining the decision to sell. Among other things, he discussed the incremental loss and eventual termination of grazing rights on the CMR over time, including increases in fees from $1.35 to over $23 per animal unit month.

Coupled with other fee increases on state lands, political uncertainties at both the state and federal level, plus past (and likely future) bad experiences with the courts – “our South Ranch no longer provides viable opportunity for future ranching generations and it is not without emotion that we have chosen to sell.”

While APF prefers to pose as a “private” group restoring bison, and is paying property taxes, as a nonprofit APF has critical, even unfair, advantages over every other genuinely private purchaser.

First, APF pays no income taxes, even if profitable – and APF is supported by wealthy “benefactors.” More important, APF’s wealthy “benefactors” get a big “charitable” tax break on their donations as well. Every dollar given to APF is effectively worth 35 percent more than if the same dollar went to buy a privately held ranch. There’s no way any private, “real” rancher could match the money APF can afford to offer.

Who are these benefactors? My favorite is candy tycoon Forrest Mars, Jr., who has given at least $400,000 (brother John Mars has given over $5 million) to APF.

In roughly 2004, Mars bought the Diamond Cross, a split-estate ranch on the Tongue River. But the subsurface mineral rights (coalbed methane) were leased by Pinnacle Gas Resources. Mars sued to block Pinnacle from drilling, and lost.

In the meantime, Mars was secretly bankrolling the Northern Plains Resource Council’s litigation against the Tongue River Railroad. When Mars lost faith in NPRC’s ability to permanently block construction, he jumped ship, buying a one-third share in the railroad with the condition it not be built through his ranch. That’s not real beneficent or benevolent, is it?

As for the idea that APF’s “private” project will stay private, email records demanded by Congress from the Department of Interior a couple of years ago show otherwise. A World Wildlife Fund staffer seeking Land and Water Conservation Fund priority status wrote that funding a 3.5-million-acre reserve “could range from $30M to $300M [million].” In short, APF hoped to “flip” its holdings to the federal government for a park the instant the funds become available – and probably still does. They can probably afford to wait, as long as it takes.

Faced with all that, is it any wonder Mr. Page and his family decided to get the heck out sooner rather than later? No, and that’s the real shame.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.