By Bill Thackeray
Gee, gosh, I plead guilty, guilty, guilty, and can only throw myself on the mercies of those of good will for vindication. As charged by Republican Chairman Brad Lotton in his strident column in the Havre Daily, "Give us a Missouri River Breaks,'" I am a professor at Montana State University-Northern, I do most often vote for candidates who are Democrats, and I did attend the recent land rights workshop at Fort Benton featuring Wayne Hage and Helen Chenoweth-Hage.
According to Chairman Brad, these facts make me a "liberal enviro-nut seated in amongst the sea of cowboy hats." Sorry, I was wearing a cap that day, and I did leave my Stetson and cowboy boots at home. But I was born on a ranch in the Milk River badlands and lived and worked there for 20-some years until I went off to serve as an officer in the Army Airborne Infantry. The Milk River badlands are even drier than the Missouri Breaks.
Gosh, come to think of it, while I was in the Army, I was also fed "by our tax dollars," as Chairman Brad complains is the case at the college; guess he hasn't heard of tuition. And the graduate schools I attended were public universities; I did pay taxes myself and tuition and fees and book expenses and living expenses while I was in college, but I acknowledge my gratitude for the state and federal support that went to the universities I attended and to MSU-Northern.
My fellow faculty member at the meeting in Fort Benton is a Korean War veteran who also went to school on the G.I. bill, so I guess we are both hopelessly guilty as charged of using taxpayer dollars. We both teach in the liberal arts area of the college in history and language, so I guess we're both "one of those liberal instructors," as Brad so colorfully expresses it, unable "to earn a living in the private sector."
I would have to contradict one of Brad's remarks, however, when he says, "I have to smile when I envision one of those liberal instructors in a cowboy hat trying to make a living out in the Missouri River Breaks. I am betting their income would show a significant decrease and the hours spent earning it would increase." Actually, when I first returned to Havre, I did buy another ranch in the Milk River valley, where I lived for several years. While I worked long hours during calving, irrigating and harvesting seasons, overall I worked fewer hours and was paid better than at MSU-Northern. Plus, I had winters free to continue my career in higher education.
So why did I attend the Fort Benton meeting? First, I admit to some sympathy for Wayne Hage, the rancher from Nevada whose water tank on public land was taken over by the U.S. Forest Service at less than market price. His original claims that he deserved title to his leased public lands were absurd, but he has my admiration for the struggle he went through to be compensated adequately for his water right.
Although it could still be appealed, Wayne Hage has won his limited claim for water rights so far, and I agree that he should have. However, the circumstances of his case seem completely irrelevant to the local situation of the creation of the wild and scenic Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. While his personal example may be an inspiration to ranchers seeking compensation for water rights that may be condemned and included in the monument, his case does not provide any legal precedent for claims to public land they are making. Hage's suits to gain title to public land he leased were soundly dismissed on two occasions.
Besides general interest and concern for water issues in Montana water, to my mind, being one of our most important natural resources my second reason for attending the meeting was that I write articles on water rights issues in the West and attend many meetings that involve such matters. In fact, it was while reading a paper at the water rights sectional of the Western Social Science Consortium in Hage's home state of Nevada, that I first learned of the circumstances of his case. Gosh, Brad, I've never seen you at any of those meetings, nor at any of the local meetings on the Milk, Marias and Missouri watersheds, nor at any of the negotiation sessions involving the water duct from Lake Elwell, nor at the negotiating sessions involving water compacts for reservations at Rocky Boy, Fort Belknap and Fort Peck.
Issues involving water in the West are involved in a number of the courses I teach at MSU-Northern, courses such as History of the American West and History of the Westward Movement. Even more specifically, I teach seminars on the Upper Missouri River, and this July I'll be teaching a seminar on the Lewis and Clark expedition in Montana, which obviously directly involves the wild and scenic Missouri River. Because of my work with the river, I was invited to be one of the dedicatory speakers on the Lewis and Clark Heritage Center when it opened in Great Falls. During summer session this summer, I am teaching a course in Montana history, where a frequent issue of discussion involves water resources for farming, for ranching, for wildlife, for mining, for recreation, and, particularly in the early days of Montana, for travel. I talked to a number of my former students at the Fort Benton meeting many of whom, in fact, are ranchers or farmers themselves. Water rights, as well as ranching and farming as major Montana enterprises, are critical to the study of Western history, certainly in my classes.
Since Brad acknowledges, "I am not a rancher," I invite him to learn something about ranching in Montana by actually working on a ranch or, at the very least, by taking one of my courses or any of a number of farm and ranch courses at the college. But nothing in life comes free. Brad, you'll have to pay the considerably increased tuition and fees required for summer school. You have your Republican friends in state government to thank for these striking increases in tuition and fees and for the fact that my salary and that of my fellow faculty members in the Montana University System are third from the bottom of all public university salaries in the nation. When I started teaching at MSU-Northern, our salaries were above the national average, and student fees were very modest. But then Democrats controlled state government.
And, Brad, no freebies here either. If you take my course, you'll have to learn to avoid wild, unfounded charges, personal insults, name-calling, and that loose, insulting stereotyping in your writing. You'll have to learn to deal with facts instead, and I'll be the one who gives you a final grade.