How Misinformation Threatened a Montana National Heritage Area

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. — In the summertime of 2020, arsenic pandemic shutdowns closed businesses and radical justness protests erupted connected American streets, Rae Grulkowski, a 56-year-old businesswoman who had ne'er been progressive successful authorities but was alarmed astir what was happening to the country, recovered a mode to marque a quality locally.

The transportation to the turbulence of nationalist authorities mightiness not person been instantly clear.

Ms. Grulkowski had conscionable heard astir a years-in-the-making effort to designate her country of cardinal Montana a nationalist practice area, celebrating its relation successful the communicative of the American West. A tiny cookware of national matching wealth was determination for the taking, to assistance gully much visitors and sphere underfunded section tourer attractions.

Ms. Grulkowski acceptable astir blowing up that effort with everything she had.

She collected addresses from a database of voters and spent $1,300 sending a packet denouncing the projected practice country to 1,498 farmers and ranchers. She told them the designation would forbid landowners to physique sheds, drill wells oregon usage fertilizers and pesticides. It would change h2o rights, springiness tourists entree to backstage property, make a caller taxation territory and prohibit caller septic systems and burials connected backstage land, she said.

None of this was true.

Yet it soon became accepted arsenic information by capable radical to transportation Montana’s starring Republican figures and blimpish organizations, including the workplace bureau, Gov. Greg Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines, to reason the connection and enact a authorities instrumentality forbidding the national authorities to make immoderate practice country successful Montana. It is simply a prohibition that the authorities has nary authorization to enforce.

Which is however a humble bid for a tiny serving of Washington pork by a radical of section civic boosters became yet different nasty skirmish successful the bitter nationwide conflict betwixt the forces of information and fantasy.

From her constituent of view, the communicative of Ms. Grulkowski’s one-woman crusade is simply a stirring reminder of the powerfulness of governmental activism. “I thought, ‘Here’s the satellite going crazy,’” she said, explaining her motivation.

From the vantage constituent of informed antiauthoritarian determination making, it’s a haunting communicative astir however a sustained governmental run tin win contempt — oregon possibly arsenic a effect of — being divorced from reality.

“Misinformation is the caller playbook,” Bob Kelly, the politician of Great Falls, said. “You don’t similar something? Create alternate facts and figures arsenic a mode to undermine reality.”

The quality has divided communities, go a wedge contented successful this fall’s governmental campaigns and near proponents of the practice country flummoxed astatine their corporate inability to refute falsehoods erstwhile they person go accepted wisdom.

“We’ve tally into the uneducable,” Ellen Sievert, a retired historical preservation serviceman for Great Falls and surrounding Cascade County, said. “I don’t cognize however we get done that.”

Most of the practice area’s cardinal supporters are Democrats, and virtually each of its opponents are Republicans. But partisanship doesn’t explicate everyone’s positions.

Steve Taylor, a erstwhile politician of Neihart (pop. 43) whose household owns a car dealership successful Great Falls, is simply a blimpish who voted for Donald J. Trump twice, though helium said helium has regretted those votes since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Fellow Republicans, helium said, person painted the practice country arsenic a wide plot.

“They marque it a governmental happening due to the fact that if you person a Democrat involved, past they are each against it,” helium said. “It’s truthful hard to physique thing and truthful casual to teardrop it down. It’s maddening. It’s truthful casual to destruct thing with untruths.”

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Giant Springs State Park adjacent   Great Falls is portion  of the projected  Big Sky Country National Heritage Area.
Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

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Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

Congress and President Ronald Reagan created National Heritage Areas successful the 1980s arsenic a concern betwixt the National Park Service and section boosters, who are required to lucifer national concern with funds raised locally. The 55 existing practice areas, successful 34 states, recognize, among different histories, metropolitan Detroit’s automotive background, Utah’s Mormon pioneers and Tennessee’s portion successful the Civil War. They collectively person astir $21 cardinal annually — a pittance successful the parkland service’s $3.5 cardinal fund — and person no interaction connected backstage spot rights, a uncovering confirmed successful a 2004 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The connection for the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area, encompassing astir of 2 cardinal Montana counties that are unneurotic astir the size of Connecticut, was the brainchild of Jane Weber, a U.S. Forest Service retiree who spent a decennary connected the Cascade County Commission.

Beginning successful 2013, Ms. Weber teamed up with section preservationists, formed a nonprofit, enlisted section businesses and raised $50,000 for a required feasibility study. In 2014, the Great Falls City Commission included the practice country arsenic portion of its authoritative maturation policy.

The connection would instrumentality successful 4 National Historic Landmarks: Lewis and Clark’s portage way astir Great Falls; Fort Benton, a pioneer municipality on the Missouri River that was the past halt for steamships heading westbound from St. Louis successful the 1800s; the First Peoples Buffalo Jump, a steep cliff implicit which Blackfoot hunters herded buffalo to their deaths; and the location and workplace of C.M. Russell, the turn-of-the-century “cowboy artist” whose paintings of the American West shaped the fashionable representation of frontier life.

The parkland work requires demonstrations of nationalist support, which Ms. Weber and her allies solicited. For six years, the process went connected mostly undisturbed. Ms. Weber hosted dozens of nationalist meetings and was a regular connected section vigor stations. Opponents made scarcely a peep.

Then the 2020 governmental play arrived.

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Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

With the coronavirus ravaging the system and protests lighting up her machine screen, Ms. Grulkowski said, she walked into a section Republican Party bureau 1 time and asked what she could bash to help. Someone told her to be a meeting. So she did.

There, she heard a presumption by Jeni Dodd, a erstwhile newsman for The Great Falls Tribune, who was moving successful a Republican superior for the Montana State Senate. Ms. Dodd had latched connected to the practice country arsenic a discarded of nationalist wealth and a thicket of conflicts of involvement for committee members and elected officials. She wrote essays successful section weeklies and started a Facebook radical calling the connection a “Big Sky Boondoggle.” It didn’t get overmuch traction.

But Ms. Grulkowski’s involvement was piqued.

At the time, she was becoming engrossed successful the online satellite of far-right media. From her location connected 34 acres successful Stockett, a farming assemblage of 157 radical southbound of Great Falls, she watched videos from outlets similar His Glory TV, wherever hosts notation to President Biden arsenic “the alleged president.” She subscribed to the Telegram messaging transmission of Seth Keshel, a prolific disinformation spreader.

And she came crossed a vein of conspiratorial accusations that nationalist practice areas were a benignant of Trojan equine that could unfastened the doorway to aboriginal national onshore grabs.

When Ms. Grulkowski, who owns a septic cleaning company, tried utilizing Ms. Dodd’s radical to propulsion the thought that Montanans’ spot rights were astatine risk, Ms. Dodd kicked her retired for promoting lies.

“I’m not blessed with radical saying it volition prehend your property, due to the fact that that is disingenuous,” Ms. Dodd said. “I said to her, ‘I deliberation you request to beryllium cautious astir the message. It isn’t really the mode that it works, what you’re saying.’”

But Ms. Grulkowski plowed ahead.

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Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

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Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

One of her letters reached Ed Bandel, the section committee subordinate for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, a almighty lobbying force. Mr. Bandel, who grows wheat and peas for vigor bars connected 3,000 acres, persuaded the workplace bureau to reason the practice country and enlisted different agriculture groups to travel suit.

The bureau printed thousands of 4-by-6-inch cards saying “Just Say No!” and listing Ms. Grulkowski’s Facebook group and different opponents, including realtors, location builders, atom growers, banal growers and wool growers. Mr. Bandel, his lad and Ms. Grulkowski near the cards connected tables astatine supportive restaurants.

By May, their run had reached the authorities capital, wherever Mr. Gianforte signed the bill barring immoderate nationalist practice country successful Montana aft it passed connected a near-party-line vote. A practice area, the bill’s substance asserted, would “interfere with authorities and backstage spot rights.”

In 2 hours of talking astatine his farm, Mr. Bandel could connection nary grounds to backmost up that claim. He said helium distrusted assurances that determination were nary specified designs. “They say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to bash it right. Don’t worry, we’ll instrumentality attraction of you. I deliberation Adolf Hitler said that, too, didn’t he?” Mr. Bandel said. “The fearfulness of the chartless is simply a immense fear.”

Mr. Bandel said helium trusted Ms. Grulkowski with the details.

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Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

But erstwhile pressed, Ms. Grulkowski, too, was incapable to place a azygous lawsuit of a spot owner’s being adversely affected by a practice area. “It’s not that determination are a batch of circumstantial instances,” she said. “There’s a batch of precise wide unfastened things that could happen.”

That somewhat amorphous fearfulness was much the point.

Outside of a poultry coop, arsenic her chickens and ducks squawked, Ms. Grulkowski ticked done the falsehoods she had work online and accepted arsenic truths successful the past year: The Covid vaccine is much unsafe than the coronavirus. Global child-trafficking rings power the governmental system. Black Lives Matter was liable for the Jan. 6 onslaught connected the Capitol. The United Nations is plotting to power satellite colonisation and prehend backstage land. Mr. Trump was the rightful victor of past year’s election. Even successful Cascade County, wherever Mr. Trump won 5 percent of the vote, Ms. Grulkowski argued that 3,000 amerciable votes were cast.

“We didn’t judge successful immoderate of that worldly until past July,” Ms. Grulkowski said. “Then we stumbled connected thing connected the internet, and we watched it, and it took america 2 days to get implicit that. And it had to bash with the kid trafficking that leads to everything. It conscionable didn’t look right, and that was conscionable implicit the top. And past we started seeing things that are lining up with that everywhere.”

One happening Ms. Grulkowski does not bash — due to the fact that she refuses to wage — is work The Great Falls Tribune, the section daily. It’s not what it erstwhile was, with conscionable 8 journalists, down from 45 successful 2000, said Richard Ecke, who spent 38 years astatine the insubstantial earlier the owner, Gannett, laid him disconnected arsenic sentiment exertion successful 2016. He is vice president of the projected practice area’s board.

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Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

In the paper’s place, accusation and misinformation astir the practice country dispersed connected Facebook and successful section outlets that parroted Ms. Grulkowski. Last winter, a glossy mag distributed to Montana farmers enactment the taxable on its cover, headlined “Intrusive Raid connected Private Property Rights.”

Ms. Grulkowski badgered supporters of the practice country to retreat fiscal backing. She raised the wealth to plaster the “Just Say No!” connection connected billboards on Interstate 15 and connected Highway 87 into Fort Benton, and connected bus-stop benches successful Great Falls.

Three of the practice area’s committee members discontinue successful frustration. Ms. Weber herself resigned from the Cascade County Commission past December aft her chap commissioners voted to reason the practice area.

“It’s precise casual to instrumentality fearfulness and mistrust and marque it enactment for you. It’s precise hard to combat backmost against each of that,” Ms. Weber said. “It’s benignant of similar trying to person idiosyncratic to get vaccinated.”

The contented is present roiling November’s municipal elections successful Great Falls.

“It’s a morganatic interest anytime you person anybody telling you a anticipation of idiosyncratic telling you: You tin bash this oregon you tin bash that with your ain property,” Fred Burow, an auctioneer challenging Mr. Kelly for the mayoralty, said.

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Credit...Louise Johns for The New York Times

Ms. Grulkowski present has ambitions beyond Montana. She wants to propulsion Congress not to renew practice areas that already exist.

Buoyed by the spot her neighbors person placed successful her, she has begun campaigning for Ms. Weber’s aged spot connected the region commission, successful portion to avenge the mode she feels: mistreated by those successful power.

She doesn’t consciousness she’s been told the full truth.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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