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Montana, Coal Railroad Reach $2M Easement Deal

MATTHEW BROWN

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) â¿¿ A long-stalled coal railroad in southeastern Montana could get an easement through the state's Miles City fish hatchery in exchange for a $2 million payment into a conservation fund and a $25 million insurance policy, under the terms of a tentative deal disclosed Wednesday.

The proposal to grant the easement to the 80-mile Tongue River Railroad still must be approved by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks commissioners.

Notice of a decision was put on the commission's Thursday agenda, but the matter was pulled late Wednesday and delayed until an unspecified date.

The railroad company is jointly owned by Arch Coal Inc., BNSF Railway and billionaire candy magnate Forrest Mars, Jr. It is fiercely opposed by conservation groups and landowners wary of new mining in southeastern Montana's huge coal fields.

The hatchery easement, one of nine needed by the railroad from the state, is considered key for a project on the drawing boards since the early 1980s.

The railroad received final approval from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in 2007 following years of litigation. But it must now seek new approval from the agency after the line was shortened when it was bought by Arch, BNSF and Mars.

The easement deal was agreed to by the railway last week after more than two years of negotiations. It says the railroad will pay $2 million into a trust fund "for the protection, preservation, management and propagation of game and non-game fishery and wildlife resources."

Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Tom Palmer said Wednesday that the easement would be in the best interests of Montana, the hatchery and anglers.

"We've been talking about this for more than 30 years and in recent years we've been working on an agreement the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission can accept," Palmer said.

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