Profile: Cowboys Are Their Weakness Montana politicians can't ignore this pro-wilderness rancher by Marilyn Berlin Snell
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When the Rappolds attended their first Bureau of Land Management scoping meeting, where the public was invited to comment on the Blindhorse drilling proposal, their allegiance to those who wanted the Front protected was sealed. "I told the meeting I'm not against natural-resource development," Rappold says. "But if we're down to the point where we need to destroy the Front to get a little dab of natural gas, it's time we started looking at new sources of energy." According to a 1995 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, there's barely enough natural gas in the entire Montana Overthrust Belt (an area that includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, in addition to the Front) to meet a month of the nation's demand.
Rappold isn't as skittish around environmentalists as some of his Montana counterparts. In 1998, in an effort to maintain the wild open spaces of his ranch for his descendants, he began talks with the Nature Conservancy and placed conservation easements — restrictions that prohibit areas from being developed, even if the land is sold — on more than 4,000 acres of rangeland. "It was a big decision to sign on the dotted line because it means the protection is forever — there's no going back." When he teamed up with the Nature Conservancy, Rappold lost a lot of friends, who felt he'd sold his soul to green devils.
"I never did understand why it was their concern," he says. "It's my ranch, my decision, and if my children and grandchildren want to inherit it, these are the terms. Maybe I'm arrogant, but I own this land, and this is the way it's going to be." In boots and a cowboy hat, Rappold stands at more than six feet, four inches. Though he has a disarming smile, when he's exercised about a topic, such as neighbors having an opinion about whom he should associate with or what he should do with his land, he tends to lower his voice and lean forward in a vaguely menacing way. (In conversations, he frequently commented that he wasn't "used to letting things bounce off.") If I were the one irritating him, I might prefer to stand just beyond arm's length.
Under the agreement reached with the Nature Conservancy, Rappold's property cannot be subdivided or used for open-pit mining (unlike most property owners in the Rocky Mountain West, the Rappolds staked their claim under the Ūrst Homestead Act and so own the land's subsurface mineral rights). "I want my grandsons to be able to saddle up their horses and see the same things I do," Rappold says. "I don't want them to saddle up and ride around a housing development or gas Ūelds or something like that." He adds, "To me, you can't go wrong protecting something in the way it was put. Men cannot go in and change Mother Nature's hand and think they can come back later and reclaim it; it doesn't work that way."
Rappold also wrote to the president of the Boone and Crockett hunting club, Bob Model, asking him to oppose the Blindhorse plan. "My main point was that the club had bought the ranch in memory of Teddy Roosevelt, that they're a conservation-minded group, and that allowing industrialized development didn't fit" with Roosevelt's conservation ideas. According to Rappold, it was the club's powerful members, many of whom are Texas and Oklahoma oilmen, who then carried that conservation message to President George W. Bush.
Founded in 1887 by Roosevelt, the Boone and Crockett Club focused
initially on the protection of big game. Model is a strong supporter of Bush and was
a guest — along with other leaders of hook-and-bullet organizations — at the president's Crawford ranch last April.
"The club believes in responsible use," says Model. "There are places that need to be protected, and there are places that can be developed responsibly."
Model says that he's never met Rappold personally and that the club's views on resource development are determined on a case-by-case basis. Of the Front, he says that to be in favor of locking it up forever "is not something we can comment on at this point," but as for a temporary suspension of development to take a hard look at alternatives: "That's something we asked for and got."
When I ask whether Boone and Crockett Club members with ties to the oil industry inßuenced Bush on the issue of drilling in the Front, Model says: "Let's put it this way. We are proud we played a role in pointing out that probably they needed to reevaluate what they were doing on the Front. We were very pleased when Assistant Secretary Watson made that announcement."
Whereas some worked their connections to the Bush administration behind the scenes in making the case for protection of the Front, Rappold spoke his mind without cover. "It takes tremendous courage to stand up in an ultraconservative area, where the big push of the Republican Party is to develop and exploit, and say to his fellow ranchers and other agricultural people that he is aligning with environmentalists, that he doesn't want drilling here," says Rappold's friend Stoney Burk.
A country lawyer in Choteau, 20 miles south of Rappold's ranch, Burk is a Vietnam vet who wears a ßeece-lined corduroy jacket to work instead of a suit. He's an avid outdoorsman who's been hunting and camping along the Front for 22 years. When Rappold was named a "Wilderness Hero" in 2004 by the Campaign for America's Wilderness, Burk presented the award.
Burk says that no one individual can take full credit for the fact that the administration has backed off its no-holds-barred drilling strategy along the Front, but that Rappold's perspective tipped the balance in important ways. He recounts how, in 2004, he and several representatives from Montana conservation groups traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with their representatives. According to Burk, they had a good meeting with Senator Max Baucus (D), but former cattleman Senator Conrad Burns (R) wouldn't see them. They met with Burns's staff but left empty-handed.
A month or so later, Rappold was asked by a member of Burk's failed delegation to go to Washington and meet with Burns. Rappold said no, it was calving season, but after a long conversation Ūnally relented. He traveled with two other ranchers from the Front; it was the Ūrst time he'd been so far east. The group was initially told that Burns was busy and could not meet with them, but after a few minutes, Burns's chief of staff left the room and returned with the senator. "He knows my family because he used to be in the Hereford cattle business," says Rappold.
Everyone shook hands. The senator sat down at the table and stayed for nearly an hour. "We were his people," says Rappold. "We weren't environmental people. We were grassroots people from the Montana Rocky Mountain Front, the people who live and work there." Rappold told Burns they wanted the drilling leases bought out and swapped for less fragile land elsewhere in Montana, and future protection for the Front. "There ain't no other kind of protection than wilderness [designation] that will permanently protect it, and we ßat told him that," Rappold says. "I think what moved him was the fact that Montana ranchers took time out of the calving season to go back to Washington and say, ÔWe've got to stop this; we don't want it in our backyard.'"
Most involved in the Ūght to save the Front call that meeting a turning point. Burns deŪnitely did not buy into the wilderness idea (he opposes more wilderness designations; in 1989 he had to apologize for questioning the patriotism of wilderness supporters). Yet in a press release his ofŪce put out after the meeting, Burns said that though he didn't "like the idea of taking these lands out of production," he was not averse to a swap-out of the leases — if funds could be raised privately. "There is a precedent for private groups purchasing land that is important to them from a conservation perspective," he said, adding, "I think it would be worthwhile . . . to explore these options." Startech officials have announced they would consider lease swaps or buyouts, and conservation groups are working to raise the funds necessary to purchase those leases.
Though drilling has been temporarily suspended, Rappold understands that in the current political climate he could have to reŪght the same battle in 2007, when the government starts a broader study of land use along the Front. He notes that in Montana "the word Ôwilderness' sends fear through people" because they worry that it's just land seizure by the federal government. Nonetheless, he is now advocating permanent wilderness designation for the mile-and-a-half strip near his ranch in which the Blindhorse area lies. The vulnerable stretch he's interested in would include part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest and bind it to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, uniting the habitat and forever foreclosing on industrial development. He adds, "This is wild country for the wildlife, and that's the way it's going to stay as long as I have any fight in me."
Rappold acknowledges that, in Montana at least, it matters who delivers the conservation message. "The U.S. senator is there to represent the people of Montana. It shouldn't matter whether I wear a cowboy hat or whether you are an environmentalist. But it does. That's why I guess environmentalists and ranchers make a good team." He adds: "Without environmental organizations, a handful of ranchers from the Front wouldn't have had anywhere to go. But environmentalists have the political knowledge, and we have the experience of the land. Together we made a powerful front to the BLM, U.S. senators, and apparently the president of the United States."