Northern Plains Resource Council Staff Director Retires After 33 Years
The woman who leads an influential conservation group in eastern Montana is retiring this summer. Teresa Erickson with the Northern Plains Resource Council spent the past three decades pushing to expand Montana’s local food scene, secure cleanup promises from mining companies and support green energy.
Erickson has played an instrumental, though largely invisible, role in Northern Plains’ projects over the past 33 years, from helping Montanans weather the farm crisis in the 1980s to establishing the first LEED-certified building in the state.
“We could have just moved into another building, just your basic building, but we decided that this was our opportunity to walk our talk and live our values,” Erickson says.
Erickson grew up in a mining family in Colorado. She says she had a steep learning curve when she landed in Montana with a new husband and new job directing staff at Northern Plains.
“Agricultural people kind of sort into two flavors. There are people who are very, very commodity, profit-oriented and they will do whatever it takes to maximize income or productivity on their land and some of its very harmful. And then there's these other flavors of farmers and ranchers who are very spiritually attached to their land. Those were Northern Plains people,” Erickson says.
She remembers an early meeting in Colstrip on one of those “seductively” warm January days that turn bitter cold at night. She says she learned some important lessons that night, from dressing to match Montana’s capricious weather to proper livestock care.
“These ranchers were talking about frozen bull scrotums. A bull is worth a lot of money and if his balls freeze he's not worth much money anymore. That was a big shock to me. I'd never thought about that. Frozen scrotums, very bad thing to happen,” Erickson says.
Steve Charter has been a Northern Plains member since he was a teen preparing to take over his family’s ranch in the Bull Mountains.
“Teresa has a lot to do with NPRC being the organization it is now. The ambitiousness of what we take on has really expanded,” Charter says.
He chaired the council as it pressured the Obama Administration in Washington, D.C. to institute a moratorium on federal coal leasing.
“It's a little intimidating to go back there in those big marble halls and think that you're, kind of, I guess worthy, being intimidated by that whole situation. And Teresa isn't intimidated by anything. The confidence she has is infectious,” Charter says.
Charter and his coalition were ultimately successful, though the Trump Administration ended the freeze a year later.
While politics set the landscape for many of Northern Plains’s issues, Erickson says it’s not their place to try to change minds at the ballot box. Charter echoes that. Like many members, he knows he’s a progressive anomaly among his neighbors.
“Our values are pretty similar but our politics are very different. It's not easy but over the years, and especially now that some of these grazing practices and regenerative stuff, you can't push it down people's throats but if you make it available and always be willing to have the conversation.Over time I think people do come around,” Charter says.
Erickson’s style of leading by example often took Northern Plains on an uphill path.
“We've always been a david and goliath but now goliath is so much bigger,” Erickson says.
She takes pride in what she calls big wins against what was in the 1990s a proposed palladium and platinum mine outside Nye.
“And we were engaged in a battle with them. We wanted to make sure the mine, if it opened up was going to protect the water,” Erickson says.
Eventually the Stillwater Mine was sold to the local Montana Stillwater Mining Company. Erickson says she promised the CEO that Northern Plains would suspend warfare if he’d sit down to negotiate, which he did. The resulting Good Neighbor Agreement, which outlines environmental and worker protections, has lasted nearly twenty years and multiple changes in the mine’s ownership.
“It was a really good example of natural resource conflict management. I don't really believe you can resolve those kind of conflicts but you can manage them,” Erickson says.
Erickson is also proud of Northern Plains’ crusade against the never-built Tongue River Railroad, which would have shuttled coal across Northern Plains members’ land from Ashland to an existing railroad line to the north.
“It was a long, joyous fight in a lot of ways because it brought people together who had never worked together before. So we had this very strong coalition of ranchers, railroad unions, there were two coal mine unions, the Operating Engineers and the United Mine Workers, townspeople, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Crow Tribe, all of whom opposed this railroad at one stage or another,” Erickson says.
For all of Erickson’s warfare imagery, her sagas always hinge on finding common ground and leading by example.
“The message I would say that I learned from this work is that our history tells us, and I believe our future will tell us, is that when people stand shoulder to shoulder and work together to protect the land, or water, that we make Montana a better place,” Erickson says.
Erickson has no immediate plans for what comes next. She says she hopes Northern Plains keeps working to make local foods and renewable energy more accessible and affordable. For Northern Plains’ incoming staff director Olivia Stockman Splinter, who starts on Monday, Erickson says:
“Keep your sense of humor. Hope is not a strategy and justice doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen,” Erickson adds.