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How Misinformation Threatened the Montana National Heritage Area

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How Misinformation Threatened the Montana National Heritage Area

Great Falls, Mont. — In the summer of 2020, as the pandemic shut down businesses and racial justice protests began to take over American streets, Rae Grulkowski, a 56-year-old businessman who was never involved in politics, but what about the country Was worried about it. A way to differentiate locally.

The connection with the upheaval of national politics may not be immediately apparent.

Ms. Grulkowski had heard about years of effort to designate her corner of central Montana a National Heritage Area, celebrating her role in the story of the American West. A small pot of federal matching money was there to attract more visitors and help preserve the local tourist attraction.

Ms. Grulkowski set about blowing up the effort with whatever she had.

He collected addresses from a list of voters and spent $1,300 by sending a packet to 1,498 farmers and ranchers condemning the proposed heritage area. He told them that the designation would prohibit landowners from building sheds, building wells or using fertilizers and pesticides. She said it would change water rights, give tourists access to private property, create a new taxation district and prohibit new septic systems and burials on private land.

None of this was true.

Yet it was soon followed by enough people in Montana to persuade prominent Republican figures and conservative organizations including the Farm Bureau, Gov. accepted as the truth. Heritage area in Montana. It is a restriction which the state has no authority to enforce.

Thus a polite bid for a small serving of Washington pork by a group of local civic boosters became yet another fierce clash in a bitter nationwide conflict between the forces of fact and fiction.

From her point of view, Ms. Grulkowski’s story of a women’s crusade is a provocative reminder of the power of political activism. “I thought, ‘Here the world is going crazy,'” he said, explaining his motivation.

From the vantage point of informed democratic decision-making, it is a haunting story about how a sustained political campaign can succeed despite being divorced from reality – or perhaps as a result of it.

“Misinformation is the new playbook,” said Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly. “Something you don’t like? Create alternative facts and figures as a way to undermine reality.”

The controversy has divided communities, becoming a tack issue in political campaigns this fall, and heritage sector Left supporters balking at their collective inability to refute the lies once they have become accepted wisdom. Got up

“We’ve run into the uneducated,” said Ellen Sievert, a retired historic preservation officer for Great Falls and surrounding Cascade County. “I don’t know how we deal with it.”

Major supporters of most of the heritage sector are Democrats, and virtually all of its opponents are Republicans. But favoritism doesn’t explain everyone’s situation.

Steve Taylor, the former mayor of Newhart (pop. 43), whose family owns a car dealership in Great Falls, is a conservative who has led Donald J. Voted Trump twice, though he said he regretted those votes since the January 6 Capitol riot. . Fellow Republicans, he said, portrayed the heritage sector as a liberal conspiracy.

“They make it a political thing because if you include a Democrat, they are all against it,” he said. “Something is so hard to make and so easy to break. It’s so crazy. It’s so easy to destroy something with a lie.”

The proposal for the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area, which includes two central Montana counties that together are the size of Connecticut, was the brainchild of Jane Weber, a U.S. Forest Service retiree who spent a decade on the Cascade County Commission. Was.

In early 2013, Weber formed a non-profit with local conservationists, listed local businesses and raised $50,000 for a needed feasibility study. In 2014, the Great Falls City Commission included the heritage area as part of its official development policy.

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The proposal will take in four National Historic Sites: Lewis and Clark’s Portage Way around Great Falls; Fort Benton, a pioneer town along the Missouri River that was the last stop for westbound steamships from St. Louis in the 1800s; The First People’s Buffalo Jump, a steep cliff on which Blackfoot hunters grazed buffalo to their death; and the home and studio of CM Russell, the “cowboy artist” of the century whose paintings of the American West shaped the popular image of marginal living.

The Park Service requires demonstrations of public support, which Ms Weber and her colleagues sought. For six years, this process went largely non-stop. Ms Weber hosted dozens of public gatherings and was a regular on local radio stations. Opponents peeped hard.

Then came the political season of 2020.

As the coronavirus ravaged the economy and protests erupted on her computer screen, Ms Grulkowski said, she walked into a local Republican Party office one day and asked what she could do to help. Somebody asked him to come to the meeting. So he did.

There, he heard a presentation by Jenny Dodd, a former reporter for The Great Falls Tribune who was running in a Republican primary for the Montana State Senate. Ms Dodd had hailed the heritage area as a waste of public money and a conflict of interest for board members and elected officials. She wrote essays in local weekly newspapers and started a Facebook group calling the proposal a “Big Sky boondoggle”. It didn’t get much traction.

But Ms. Grulkowski’s interest was piqued.

At the time, she was getting engrossed in the online world of far-right media. From her home on 34 acres in Stockett, a farming community of 157 people south of Great Falls, she watched videos from outlets such as His Glory TV, where the hosts refer to President Biden as “the so-called president.” She subscribed to the Telegram messaging channel of Seth Keschel, a prolific disruptive broadcaster.

And that came in a vein of conspiratorial allegations that national heritage areas were a sort of Trojan horse that could open the door to future federal land grabs.

When Ms. Grulkowski, who owns a septic cleaning company, used Ms. Dodd’s group to advance the idea that Montanans’ property rights were at risk, Ms. Dodd lashed out at her for promoting lies. .

“I’m not happy for people to say it’s going to confiscate your property because it’s fraudulent,” Ms. Dodd said. “I told him, ‘I think you need to be careful about the message. It’s not really the way it works, what you’re saying.'”

But Ms. Grulkowski plowed ahead.

One of her letters reached Ed Bandell, a local board member of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, a powerful lobbying force. Mr. Bandel, who grows wheat and peas for energy bars on 3,000 acres, persuaded the Farm Bureau to oppose the heritage area and enlisted other agricultural groups to follow suit.

Bureau called “Just Say No!” Saying printed thousands of 4-by-6-inch cards. and Ms. Grulkowski’s Facebook group and listing other detractors, including realtors, home builders, grain producers, stock producers and wool producers. Mr. Bandel, his son and Ms. Grulkowski left cards on tables at the subsidiary restaurant.

By May, his campaign had reached the state capital, where Mr. Gianfort signed the bill barring any national heritage areas in Montana, when it passed on a near-party-line vote. A heritage area, the text of the bill said, “would interfere with the rights of the state and private property.”

In a two-hour conversation at his farm, Mr. Bandel could not provide any evidence to support that claim. He said he did not rely on assurances of any such design. “They say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get it right. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. I think Adolf Hitler said the same thing, right?’ Mr. Bandel said. “The fear of the unknown is a great fear.”

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Mr Bandel said he trusted Ms Grulkowski with the details.

But when pressed, even Ms Grulkowski was unable to identify a single instance of a property owner being adversely affected by the heritage sector. “Not that there are too many specific examples,” she said. “There are a lot of open things that can happen.”

That was some amorphous fear more thing.

Outside a poultry coop, as her chickens and ducklings chirped, Ms Grulkowski ticked through the lies she’d read online and accepted as the truth over the past year: The Covid Vaccine Over Coronavirus is dangerous. Global child-trafficking rings control the political system. Black Lives Matter was responsible for the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The United Nations is plotting to control the world population and seize private land. Mr Trump was the rightful winner of last year’s election. Even in Cascade County, where Trump won 5 percent of the vote, Ms Grulkowski argued that 3,000 illegal votes were cast.

“We didn’t believe in any of that stuff until last July,” Ms Grulkowski said. “Then we stumbled upon something on the internet, and we saw it, and it took us two days to get over it. And it had to do with child trafficking that leads to everything. It just didn’t look right, And he was just over the top. And then we started seeing things that are associated with him everywhere.”

One thing Ms Grulkowski doesn’t do – as she refuses to pay – read The Great Falls Tribune, the local daily. It’s not what it once was, with just eight journalists down from 45 in 2000, said Richard Acke, who spent 38 years at the paper before owner Gannett was hired as opinion editor in 2016. He is the Vice Chairman of the Proposed Heritage Area Board

In place of the newspaper, information and misinformation about the heritage area was spread on Facebook and in local shops that parroted Ms. Grulkowski. Last winter, a glossy magazine distributed to Montana farmers carried the topic on its cover, titled “Intrusive Raids on Private Property Rights.”

Ms Grulkowski scolded supporters of the heritage sector for withdrawing financial support. She said “Just say no!” Raise money to plaster. Billboards along Interstate 15 and messages on Highway 87 in Fort Benton, and on bus-stop benches in Great Falls.

Three members of the board of the heritage sector resigned in despair. Ms Weber resigned from the Cascade County Commission last December after her fellow commissioners voted to oppose the heritage area.

“It is very easy to take fear and distrust and make it work for you. It is very hard to fight back against it all,” said Ms. Weber. “It’s like trying to convince someone to get vaccinated.”

The issue is now raging over the municipal elections in Great Falls to be held in November.

Fred Burrows, an auctioneer who challenged Mr Kelly for mayor’s post, said: “It’s a legitimate concern whenever you have someone telling you what someone can tell you: you can do it or you can do it for your property.” You can do that together.”

Ms. Grulkowski now has ambitions beyond Montana. She wants to encourage Congress not to renew heritage areas that already exist.

Buoyed by the confidence of her neighbors, she begins campaigning for Ms. Weber’s old seat on the county commission, partly in revenge for the way she feels: abused by those in power. to be done.

He doesn’t think he has been told the whole truth.

Kitty Bennett Contributed to research.

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