About Powder River
Economy: Powder River County covers 3,297 square miles with a population over 1658 persons. The town of Broadus claims 458 residents. Jobs in town are dominated by government employment and the largest private employer is the local grocery store. There are many small business owners, including farmers and ranchers. The business community is service and retail oriented and is LARGELY dependent on the surrounding agricultural base.
Broadus is the only commercial center of any size in the county. It has a bustling business district with several restaurants, a grocery store, and several retail stores.
A Physicians Assistant, a Registered Nurse and technician staff the county supported medical clinic, with a County Health Nurse located in the basement. The Powder River Manor is a county owned nursing home with 39-beds. The only secondary public school in Powder River County is in Broadus.
During the 1970’s, Powder River County experienced an oil boom. During this time span, improvements were made to the high school and a multi-purpose fair barn building, a nursing home and the courthouse were all constructed. With the drop in crude oil prices in the 1980’s, oil production decreased dramatically and the county experienced a drop in population. The high county taxable value in 1979 of nearly $80,000,000 has dropped by 95% to its current value of just over $4,000,000. From 2000 to 2004, the taxable value dropped over 20%. The county government strains to provide services and support infrastructure built during the boom. At present, the average annual wage per job in Powder River County continues to be one of the lowest in the State of Montana.
Currently, the county’s survival is solely dependent on agriculture. Powder River County has followed the national trend of farms and ranches becoming larger with fewer people available to support the area businesses. However, Powder River is a county rich in natural resources. The Otter Creek coal tracts, a coal reserve estimated to be 1.3 billion tons, was recently leased by Arch Coal and the potential for development of this site looms on the horizon. Permitting timeframes, construction, and associated steps place this development approximately 7-10 years away from completion. It has been estimated that this mine will employ approximately 400 persons at full capacity. Additionally, plans are underway to construct a new carbon dioxide pipeline to aging oil fields in the Powder River Basin. The Belle Creek oil field is in this region and with the injection of the carbon dioxide, it is estimated that it will increase oil production by as much as 30 million barrels of oil that otherwise could not be produced. A third natural resource is coalbed methane. This resource has not been pursued actively in the State of Montana like it has been in Wyoming. While it is a viable natural resource to extract and market, it is doubtful that it will happen in the near future in Powder River County on a wide scale basis.
Powder River County is similar to other counties in the region as the population is comprised of 98% Caucasian. This agriculture-based county is also experiencing the challenge of a decline in the younger population, as more young people move out of the county seeking employment opportunities, leaving an older work force. The largest cumulative payroll is made in government employment. The County’s population of 1,658 has continued to decline since the 1960’s.
Infrastructure & Services: Services provided throughout the county are law and fire protection, a medical clinic and nursing home, park with basketball courts, a community center, senior center, pool, ball park, golf course, a County cemetery, library facilities, road maintenance, landfill facilities, and weed control. The Town of Broadus provides trash pick-up for town residents and has some mandatory recycling to reduce this service’s expenses. In addition to the Powder River County Sheriff Department, the Town of Broadus has one law enforcement officer and the Town and County share equipment and cooperate extensively on projects. Fire protection services are provided on a volunteer basis.
Some areas of the town sewer system are over 40 years old and need repair or replacement. The problem has been identified, however limited resources and tax revenue has hindered further solutions to the problem. Basic infrastructure repair and maintenance is a major challenge for this county. Additional needs include numerous sites that have been placed on the Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (LUST) register. Owners are unable to sell these sites and many of them are in prime retail locations.
A new landfill was constructed between 2005 and 2010. Additionally, the airport was re-located to a new site just outside of town. While the airport is missing some essential services such as a Fixed Base Operator, a hangar for airplane storage/repair and a wildlife protective fence, it does offer onsite fueling.
If any sizeable natural resource development occurs in Powder River County, there will be huge economic, social and health impacts.
In 1991, Powder River County and community volunteers developed a Community Action Plan. Through several community meetings, the group established nine goals and corresponding action plan. In 1994, the county commissioners approved a land use plan that stated “the goal of Powder River County is to help increase recreation and tourism within the county, if it does not interfere with established uses.”
In 1997, Powder River County was selected as one of three communities to be part of the Montana Community Tourism Assessment Program. Valuable data was collected to determine the community’s attitude toward tourism and potential markets.
Through community assessment, the community determined that Powder River County is an under-developed travel corridor surrounded by huge visitor numbers who travel to see the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore on one side and Custer Battlefield and Yellowstone Park on the other. As a result, the county and community combined efforts to get funding for a visitor center on the highway outside of Broadus. In 1999 Broadus received the State of Montana’s Tourism Community of the Year award. Volunteerism and interest to promote the local economy is very active in this small community. To further this goal, during the 2007 Legislative Session, a bill was passed to name Highway 212 from Alzada to Bighorn Battlefield, The Warrior Trail. The Warrior Trail represents a route from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Bighorn Battlefield and is about 100 miles shorter in distance than the alternate interstate route through Sheridan, WY. The communities along this route have come together in a marketing effort to publicize and promote this route.
Natural Resources: As previously stated, Powder River is a county rich in natural resources. Coal, oil, coalbed methane gas, and prairies filled with high protein grass make this county a hotbed and likely candidate for product export. The primary limiting factor to this export is the controversial atmosphere surrounding natural resource extraction. The railroad that would have to be built in order to transport the coal out of the region threatens private property rights. Water quality is a concern. Land reclamation is paramount. Noise and traffic pollution as well as “people” pollution threaten what is a quiet, gentle, rural way of life for Powder River County citizens.