The Tongue River Railroad Tries Again: The Little Engine That Couldn’t, Part 1

For my entire life, the Tongue River Railroad Company has been trying – and failing – to build a single purpose rail line to haul coal along the scenic Tongue River in southeastern Montana. Earlier this year, their permit to construct the railroad was revoked by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). The STB ruled that the Tongue River Railroad Company must reapply for a permit to carry coal from the isolated Otter Creek coal tracts because their environmental analysis of the impacts of this rail line was inadequate, outdated and irrelevant.

Undeterred by their permit being pulled, the backers of this railroad are trying again to get this expensive and destructive railroad built all the while destroying valuable wildlife habitat, threatening condemnation of private property and forever changing the character and nature of this valley forever.

Why I Care About the Tongue River Valley (and why you should too)

Bull Elk
a Bull Elk – Photo courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

The valley provides valuable wildlife habitat

The Tongue River valley provides habitat for thousands of species of western wildlife and plants. The river, which flows from the snowfields of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains and meanders for more than 250 miles before emptying into the Yellowstone River, supports a “mind-bogglingly rich assemblage of native warm water fish.”  The river winds through the beautiful and varied landscapes of eastern Montana – the Tongue River Canyon, the Tongue River breaks, and the buttes, grasslands, and pine hills – which provide ideal habitat for the wildlife of the Great Plains including mule deer, elk, bald eagles, cougars, black bear and many other iconic western species.

The Northern Cheyenne, whose reservation is bordered on the eastern edge by the Tongue River, also value the river system for its wildlife and plants. Some of the edible plants collected along the Tongue River include chokecherries, currants, ground plums, mushrooms, prickly pear, rose hips, sage, scurfpea, snowberries, sunflowers, wild mint, and wild turnips. Cheyenne value the antelope, deer, elk, rabbit, duck, goose, grouse, pheasant, catfish and northern pike for subsistance hunting and fishing.

In a 2003 letter to the Tongue River Railroad Company, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks stated their concerns,

“Millions of sportsmen’s dollars have been invested into the Miles City Fish Hatchery, block management,  conservation easements, and programs to provide access for hunting and fishing along the Tongue River.”

The valley contains invaluable cultural and archaeological resources

Centuries ago, the rich supply of wild game and fish attracted Native Americans to the Tongue River region. They hunted migrating herds of bison, deer, and elk and fished the abundant streams. Southeastern Montana  is full of evidence of these early occupants: arrowheads, tepee rings, petroglyphs, battlegrounds, burial sites and a 2,000-year old bison bone bed.

There is a deep connection between the Northern Cheyenne and the Tongue River.

“The Tongue River valley has been home to the Northern Cheyenne since at least early historic times, the people developed a relationship with the river and the valley in terms everyday activities, the wildlife and plant life it sustains as well as in a spiritual context.” (BLM, Statewide Oil and Gas EIS, Northern Cheyenne Supplement)

Clint and Wally McRae - Ranchers whose land would be crossed by the Tongue River Railroad
Clint and Wally McRae, ranchers whose land would be crossed by the Tongue River Railroad.
As Northern Cheyenne elders told the BLM during an oil and gas environmental analysis project, their very definition of cultural resources is not only acchaeologically defined sites but includes water, plants, animals, Great Birds, fish and minerals.

The previous Tongue River Railroad environmental impact statements noted that there were many cultural areas that would be destroyed by the construction of this rail line, important to not only the Northern Cheyenne but also many of the Sioux tribes, Arapahoe, Shoshone and Crow.

The valley sustains the local agricultural and hunting economy

Clean water and undisturbed wildlife habitat are key components of the local economy in southeastern Montana. The Tongue River is the lifeblood of the local ranches, many of which were established by the first American settlers to set foot in Montana. Ranchers, many of whom allow the public on their land for hunting, rely on a clean river to irrigate their fields and water their livestock.Hunters and anglers, who come to this region of abundant wildlife from across the country to harvest trophy mule deer and elk, drive the local economy and support jobs.

Why the Tongue River Railroad is a Bad Idea

  1. The railroad will harm wildlife and destroy habitat: Loss of habitat, wildlife mortality due to collisions with trains, and the reduction in habitat quality are the main impacts of habitat fragmentation by railroads. This may cause reduced population viability or threaten a species survival. On a local scale, trains affect wildlife habitats through the introduction of noxious weeds, emission of toxic contaminants like heavy metals, or spraying of herbicides to control weeds as well as the likelihood that the trains will spark a wildfire in this arid country. And, because the Tongue River Railroad would carry coal and coal alone, the valley would be subjected to thousands of pounds of toxin-laden coal dust each year and would face the risk of coal train derailments into the Tongue River.
  2. The railroad will destroy cultural resources. Coal companies in the region have shown that the preservation and protection of cultural resources is not a priority for them. Unfortunately, laws that are intended to protect tribal, historic and archaeological places and artifacts give do not emphasize the value of leaving these resources in place. If the railroad is allowed to proceed, it will inevitably impact some of the valley’s cultural and historical resources and important cultural plant species.
  3. The railroad will be a major contributor to climate change: The Tongue River Railroad Company – jointly owned by Arch Coal and Burlington Northern Santa Fe – wants to build the new railroad spur for one reason: to transport coal from Arch’s proposed Otter Creek mine to coal-fired power plants in Asia. However, they are still somehow insisting that this coal will be burned in the mid-West market.

We all know that coal is one of the dirtiest fuel sources on the planet, that coal mining coal causes irreparable damage to the land, water, and air, and that burning coal releases greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. If the company is unsuccessful in its bid to build the railroad, development of the massive coal mine at Otter Creek may be economically unfeasible.

What you can do to help protect the Tongue River Valley

Deer Medicine Rocks, located along Rosebud Creek in southeast Montana.
The Tongue River Railroad needs a permit from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to move forward. Right now, the STB is asking the public to tell them what they should study in a new Environmental Impact Statement. We need to tell the STB to analyze all impacts that the Tongue River Railroad will have on our environment including wildlife impacts and climate change.

Attend Public Meetings in Montana

The STB is holding several public meetings in the Tongue River region to inform the public about the proposed railroad and to hear comments from interested individuals. The meetings are being held on the following dates and locations. For directions to each hearing go to the STB website they have set up for the public comment period.

November 12 – Lame Deer, Montana

November 13 – Forsyth, Montana

November 14 – Ashland, Montana

November 15 – Miles City, Montana

November 16 – Lame Deer, Montana (second hearing)

Submit Comments

You can send your comments to: Ken Blodgett, Surface Transportation Board, 395 E Street, SW, Washington, D.C. 20423-0001, Environmental filing, Docket No. FD 30186. The STB also provides an online comment form.

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If you need help submitting comments or want more information about the Tongue River Railroad and its impacts on wildlife, please contact me at Stay tuned for updates about the public scoping hearings and more about the Tongue River Railroad in Part II and III.