August 13, 2017 at 6:30 PM
SAND SPRINGS, Mont. — In this part of Montana's rugged eastern prairie, Erwin Weder and the other ranchers and cowboys are not used to feeling kicked around. But as Weder drives his pickup truck onto a bluff to gaze out over "Big Sky Country," he feels a bit defeated.
Hundreds of miles of meadows and scrub grass that feed tens of thousands of beef cattle are gone, replaced by the charred soil and smoldering prairie dog burrows that the state's largest wildfire in nearly three decades has left behind. But after the massive multimillion-dollar firefight, another battle has emerged in the wide open spaces where there is often distrust of the government: What should the federal role be in helping Montana's livestock industry respond to, and recover from, the blaze.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) originally rejected Montana's request for assistance, a process that ranchers say left them feeling forgotten and misunderstood by Washington. Now, many in this deeply conservative region are weighing their wariness about bureaucrats against their need for help.
"We lost 70 percent of our grass, which means 70 percent of our revenue," said Weder, 41, who is trying to locate hundreds of cattle that scattered as the flames tore across his 65,000-acre ranch. "I don't think people truly understand what an acre of grass is worth to us . . . and the millions of dollars that will be lost over the next few years."
Local officials across the United States worry that it is becoming more difficult to secure help from FEMA for all sorts of natural disasters. Since January, members of Congress and state officials have protested initial FEMA denials following a tornado outbreak in Louisiana, flooding in North Carolina, and snowstorms in Pennsylvania and Oregon.
The Trump administration has been hinting that it might limit federal spending on disaster relief and preparation, and FEMA is considering whether to draft regulations to shift more responsibility for rebuilding to the states. The creation of "disaster deductibles" — which states would have to exhaust before FEMA offers federal assistance — was first proposed under the Obama administration.
The new administration says it is following established criteria for responding to disasters, and it has not indicated clear standards for when it plans to step in with disaster assistance, especially in cases that affect relatively localized areas. President Trump's proposed 2018 budget includes more money for disaster assistance but reduces preparedness grants by $667 million, something that has sparked dismay among state officials. In March, Trump also proposed an 11 percent cut to FEMA's 2017 budget to help fund construction of his proposed border wall. But after denying a wave of disaster assistance requests earlier this year, FEMA has recently begun reversing some of those initial findings, including a recent announcement that it would send aid to Oregon to help it recover from a series of snowstorms.
Trump recently went to FEMA headquarters and vowed that the agency would "quickly" and "effectively" respond if a hurricane strikes the United States this year, but states remain unclear what help they'll get and when they'll get it.
FEMA Administrator William B. "Brock" Long said in a recent interview that agency grant funding for disaster preparedness has been trending down since 2010, reflecting a philosophical question: Should the federal government fully sustain programs at the state level or should the federal funding "serve as a catalyst"?
Long said he believes that preparedness, response and recovery are a shared responsibility and that states should have "rainy day funds to support their localities when the federal government support's not coming to town."
"We can't afford to completely sustain or supplement programs through federal grants alone," Long said. "This is a partnership. We have to have an honest conversation with states, with state and local governments, as to what is the right balance for sustaining programs in responding and recovery."
In Sand Springs, where ranchers sometimes must drive an hour to reach their neighbors, FEMA faces new conflict over the value of the grass that nurtures the nation's food supply.
The value of a disaster can't be summed up in property damage here, a highway outpost that consists of a post office, church, general store and a one-room school with three students. The real cost of the fire is measured in the loss of meadow and wheat grasses that sustain an estimated 50,000 cows.
The Lodgepole Complex fire scorched 425 square miles, about twice the size of Chicago. It ranks as the third-largest fire in the settled history of the northern Rocky Mountain region, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After a lightning storm sparked the blaze July 19, FEMA's initial denial of the state's general request for disaster assistance while the fire was raging angered local officials, who viewed it as another disconnect between Washington and the heartland. They argue that too much federal money goes to populated areas even though Montanans pay their taxes, too.
"The federal government needs to understand, not everything comes from the city," said Teddy Robertson, a commissioner in Garfield County, which includes Sand Springs and has the third-lowest population density of any county in the continental United States. "To have FEMA turn us down, it was like a slap in the face that we don't matter."
Montana's congressional delegation pressured FEMA to reverse its decision, and the agency says it agreed to compensate the state through its Fire Management Assistance Program four days later. The federal agency said in a statement that "there have not been changes to FEMA policy in regards to federal assistance or reimbursement for disaster related expenses."
FEMA's fire assistance program reimburses states for 75 percent of the costs associated with battling wildfires. State and county officials estimate they've spent about $9 million extinguishing the Lodgepole blaze, which was brought under control July 29.
Bruce Suenram, Montana's deputy fire and aviation chief since 2009, said this is the first time he can recall that Montana had to aggressively push for FEMA firefighting assistance.
"It would certainly be beneficial to us all if we had more specific criteria that we knew we had to meet, so we don't waste each other's time," he said.
W. Craig Fugate, who served as FEMA administrator during President Barack Obama's second term, said he suspects Montana struggled to get its request approved because the fire "didn't threaten enough homes." He added that ranchers and farmers are considered businesses and typically are not eligible for FEMA assistance.
"I was always amazed by how many people decide, as a business, that I have this loss and that I want someone else to pay for it — and from this part of the world, that doesn't like red tape and doesn't like a lot of things until they need something," said Fugate, who added that states would do more to mitigate risk if they had to shoulder a greater share of disaster recovery costs.
Now that the firefighting funding has been sorted out, it is unclear what the federal government will do in terms of helping to restore the grasslands and assisting the businesses and people that rely on them. Local ranchers here say they could face an especially dire situation if the drought persists into next year because the scorched prairie can only rejuvenate if it gets much-needed rain.
Before declaring a fire emergency, FEMA evaluates threats to property and "critical infrastructure," availability of resources and potential for "major economic impact."
In Garfield County, where 1,300 residents are scattered across an area nearly twice the size of Delaware, local officials say it isn't easy to document the full scope of a disaster. When there's a major fire here, residents respond with their own water and pumper trucks to battle it, making it difficult to track expenses.
Residents say it could take weeks or months to determine how many cattle were killed in a fire so large it took helicopters three hours to fly around its perimeter.
"It's hard to assess value, with boots on the ground, when you have more cows than homes," said Anne Miller, a Garfield County official who is helping to coordinate relief efforts. "You are not just pulling home values and land records."
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was initially irate over FEMA's stance but later credited Long, the FEMA administrator, for realizing "that lots of people's life support was burning up." But Tester, a fifth-generation wheat farmer, said broader discussions are needed about how FEMA values disasters that don't involve loss of life or buildings, especially as it relates to the impact of climate change.
In northeastern Montana, July was among the warmest months on record and the first seven months of the year the driest period in 110 years, according to the National Weather Service.
"I think there needs to be a realization by this president, climate change is real, and our fire season is getting longer and more intense," Tester said.
That's trouble for ranchers, who rely on paychecks that come once a year. Cows spend all summer munching on grass while raising calves. After the fall roundup, calves are separated from their mothers and are sold for about $1,000 each. That payday depends largely on whether mother cows can find enough grass or hay to keep nursing.
Relying on the federal government is at odds with the culture here, especially in a county where 91 percent of voters supported Donald Trump at the polls in November. As Weder put it, "Most here would rather starve than be on welfare."
Travis Brown, who owns the L.O. Cattle Co. in Sand Springs, easily recites the family motto about why his great-grandfather moved to the region from Texas around 1918: "To carve out a ranch from the sheer force of work and will."
Brown, 33, owns about 1,300 cattle on 93 square miles of ranchland that gradually slopes up from creek beds into foothills marked by remnants of original homesteader settlements. With antelope and mule deer leaping through his fields, he and his border collie, Gert, spent much of the week after the fire just trying to find his cows.
Generally, Brown said, it requires about 40 acres of grassland to sustain one cow and calf for a year. When that grass disappears, ranchers must purchase hay, and a lactating cow can eat 20 to 40 pounds of it each day. At $150 per ton of hay, that can work out to more than $2,000 per day in unexpected costs for his herd.
"We are all asking, 'What are we going to feed these cows?' " said Brown, who lives on the ranch with his wife, the area's only dentist. "And if we mishandle this recovery period, we could do longer-term damage to the land."
To the unease of some environmentalists, the federal government has offered up one short-term solution: Allowing affected ranchers to move their cattle into the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation's largest, north of here along the Missouri River. Paul Santavy, the refuge's manager, said the Interior Department approved emergency regulations allowing grazing there — at a monthly fee of $29 per cow-calf pair — until November.
"People said, 'We are not looking for a handout. We just need help and somewhere to put our cows' . . . and we have the ability to do that," Santavy said, adding that biologists expect no environmental disruption to the refuge.
Matthew Bliss is rounding up his cattle to transport them to the refuge, which he says will cost him about $60,000 in grazing fees. Without the service, Bliss said he would have to jam his herd into a feedlot, where they would stand largely stationary or be sold off prematurely.
"We are gracious for the help because, right now, my cows are just not happy," Bliss said. Asked whether he would also welcome other federal help, Bliss bent his head down toward his dashboard. "Well," he said, before an extended pause, "we like to do our own thing. . . . We already feel they do enough."
Joel Achenbach in Washington contributed to this report.