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Philanthropist lobs complaint about Montana

5/31/2006

HELENA, Mont. — The wealthy man's rejection letter to the University of Montana made his point tersely: Until Montanans start showing a little more appreciation for out-of-state landowners like him, don't expect a donation.

The ill will over outsiders in Montana is not new. For years, Montanans have complained that rich people looking for a new lifestyle move to the state, then have the nerve to question Montana's way of doing things when it comes to hunting and fishing.

But the letter last month from the Atlanta-based James M. Cox, Jr. Foundation was a rare example of the financial consequences of that dispute.

The University of Montana had approached the Cox foundation for money to help construct a $3 million auditorium for the university's journalism school on the campus in Missoula.

The foundation replied: "As you may know, many Montana residents are making it known that they are not happy with nonresident landowners in their state. In addition, stream and river access issues are also being raised. Until these issues are resolved and our presence in the state is more appreciated, we have decided not to make any further contributions in Montana."

The letter was signed by a foundation secretary, but the views expressed were those of philanthropist James C. Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises Inc., the TV, radio and newspaper empire founded by his grandfather. Kennedy is vice president of the Cox foundation.

Kennedy said he has owned land in Montana for over 10 years. His holdings include about 3,200 acres along the Ruby River, a prized trout stream at the center of a dispute over public access for fishing.

"There are a lot of nonresident landowners who do a lot of good things for Montana, and who are upset by this constant harping about nonresident landowners," Kennedy said in a telephone interview from his Atlanta office.

Jerry Brown, the university's dean of journalism, responded to the letter by saying, "This is both baffling and humorous and its sounds like the melodrama of the New West: 'Wealthy outside landowner and locals clash over stream access."'

Kennedy said the main reason the foundation declined to donate was that Cox has no businesses in Montana -- though that point was not made in the letter. When the letter was being prepared, Kennedy said, he told an assistant to "lob in something about this other issue."

"Sometimes your emotions get carried away," said Kennedy, whose personal giving in Montana includes scholarships for high school students in Twin Bridges and White Sulphur Springs, near his property.

Other wealthy people have bought land in Montana only to find conflict part of the package.

After Ted Turner began buying ranch property more than 25 years ago, some Montana cattlemen complained when he brought in bison, which ranchers feared could transmit disease to cattle. He refused to allow hunting on a ranch, and neighbors complained that elk wandering from his place damaged their land.

Last year, former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, who gave the University of Montana $40,000 for its journalism building, obtained a court order revoking permits that would have allowed an outfitter to take more hunters onto land next to Brokaw's Montana ranch. Brokaw said he did not oppose hunting in general but was worried that he or his family would get hit by a stray bullet.

In Montana's Bitterroot Valley, rock singer Huey Lewis has been involved in a dispute for several years over water running through his property. Lewis maintains that it is nothing more than a ditch and is not covered by a Montana law that says all navigable streams are public. Some 50 anglers ignored Lewis' "No Trespassing" signs one day last summer to fish the waters.

As for Kennedy, critics say fences allowed for control of livestock on his land are keeping people from reaching the Ruby River.

Jerry Johnson, a political scientist at Montana State University, has studied what he calls "the out-of-stater-newcomer thing" for more than a decade.

"It's really easy to blame the out-of-staters for putting up 'No Trespassing' signs and wanting privacy, which is why they buy the big holdings here," Johnson said.

But he said the conflict cuts both ways, with some longtime residents snootily maintaining that "you're somehow more legitimate if you're fourth generation than if you're here for the fourth year."

"There's an awful lot of jealousy" of these rich newcomers, "but an awful lot of them are well-intentioned," he said. Most "really do want to fit into Montana."

Brown, the journalism dean, said building the auditorium will be postponed for lack of money.

"I am sorry Mr. Kennedy's anger regarding differences with Montanans about stream and river access is turned on, of all things, a professional journalism school with our reputation," Brown said. But, he added, "We've trudged on for a mere 90 years without support from the Cox chain, and we will labor on."