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Guest Editorial: I-191 would devastate Montana's Ag industry

Agriculture is Montana’s top economic industry, generating approximately $4 billion last year alone. (citation: Topics/A-D/Ag-Facts). Our farmers and ranchers not only feed Montana but provide for people across the country and the globe, all while being stewards of the land.

My great grandfather started a portion of our family ranch around Glen over 150 years ago and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to continue its operation along with my brother and son. Our family has lived off the land for generations, working hand-in-hand with Mother Nature. Conservation of the land and water is not only our livelihoods, but our responsibility and passion. Best practices and stewardship today help ensure our ability to pass along the business to our kids and grandkids.

Farmers and ranchers work regularly with watershed groups, state and federal government agencies, wildlife and fisheries biologists, and conservation districts to ensure the highest standards of land and water management. Montana’s agricultural industry has been at the table to help create some of the most stringent environmental protections found in the country. And we are proud of that record.

That is why Montana’s agriculture industry is troubled by a proposed ballot measure that would disregard collaboration and local control, circumvent the existing strict environmental protections, and prohibit farming and ranching families in Southwest Montana from operating near vast stretches of water.

The state’s leading agricultural groups, including the Farm Bureau Federation and the Stockgrowers Association, have come out in opposition to proposed ballot measure I-191, which would designate over 100 miles of the Madison and Gallatin rivers, and their tributaries, as Outstanding Resource Water (ORW). An ORW designation has never been used outside of a national park or wilderness area, and state law already spells out a rigorous process for creating an ORW, including public involvement, an Environmental Impact Statement, and review by experts.

I-191 would circumvent that entire process and prevent the issuance of any new discharge permits, or expanding existing ones, in the affected area if they would result in even a “temporary” change in water quality. There are all kinds of farming and ranching activities that require a permit from the state, including maintenance of headgates, diversions, bridges, and other infrastructure. All of these permits would be restricted if I-191 is enacted.

In practical terms, this initiative would restrict the ability of farmers to irrigate and ranchers to water their livestock and could cause some family agriculture operations to go out of business.

The unintended consequences of I-191 also include devaluing property, prohibiting road and bridge maintenance, shutting down an entire area of Gallatin and Madison Counties to affordable housing development, and undermining current river restoration efforts that require permits for temporary water change. I-191 would prevent all land resource managers from fulfilling their responsibility to nature and society by enhancing the resource through the development of solutions to mitigate past, present and future impacts that degrade the resource.

I-191 would not only be a direct hit to Montana’s top industry, but it could also put family farms and ranches out of business. I urge Montanans to support their farming and ranching neighbors along with responsible management of the resource and oppose I-191.

Jim Hagenbarth is a founding member of the Big Hole Watershed Committee and is active in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau.

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