Jeanne Charter cared deeply about issues such as land preservation, agriculture and the environment.
The 61-year-old Shepherd-area woman spent years actively seeking to make a difference in all of those areas.
That’s what friends of Charter said about her Saturday, a day after she was killed in a three-vehicle collision north of Billings on U.S. Highway 87. Charter was driving a Toyota pickup northbound on the highway at about 4:30 p.m. when the crash occurred.
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Mark Tome said Saturday evening that it appeared that Charter’s pickup was in front of a sport utility vehicle driven by a 40-year-old Musselshell County woman.
He said Charter’s pickup slowed to make a turn and was struck from behind by the SUV. Both vehicles ended up in the southbound lane, in the path of a Ford F350 pickup pulling a horse trailer. The two pickups collided, Tome said, and both ended up in the ditch. Charter was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash.
The driver of the SUV, which came to rest in the northbound lane, was flown to St. Vincent Healthcare, where she remained Saturday with non-life-threatening injuries. The driver of the Ford and a young girl who was a passenger suffered minor injuries, and that driver was admitted to St. Vincent, Tome said.
The names of the other two drivers involved have not yet been released.
Tome said the cause appeared to be an inattentive driver. The wreck remains under investigation.
Charter is survived by her husband, Steve, and a son and daughter, Ressa and Annika. The Charters live on a ranch 19 miles north of Billings where they raise Angus and Charolais cattle.
Jeanne Charter was a longtime member of the Northern Plains Resource Council and served on its board, NPRC Chairman Ed Gulick said. The statewide nonprofit organization focuses on issues affecting air, land and water quality, as well as on sustainable economic development.
“When I think about Jeanne, I think she’s always stood up for all that is good and just,” Gulick said. “She’s always very strategic in her thinking and thinks of ways of including people and making a difference in the world.”
If she felt strongly about an issue, Gulick said, Charter wouldn’t back down. But she wasn’t bellicose or belligerent, he said.
“It was always constructive thoughts about what was wrong with the way things were being done and how we could improve it,” Gulick said.
A member of what’s now the Bull Mountains Land Alliance, Charter raised concerns about the effect that coal mining in the Bull Mountains would have on water quality and the land.
She and Steve battled the beef check-off fee, which they argued violated their rights as independent producers. They only gave up the eight-year battle after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in a separate case that upheld the fee.
Charter also helped start the Local Foods Buying Club, a program affiliated with the NPRC, as a way to encourage support for local farmers and ranchers.
She also frequently traveled to Helena to speak to legislators about issues she felt were too important to ignore. Longtime friend and neighbor Ellen Pfister said she and Charter had just been to Helena to lobby the Legislature about two weeks ago.
Between the two of them, Pfister said, they figured they had been speaking their minds to legislators biannually for the past 38 years.
“Jeannie and I first met during the 1973 legislative session, and we were both lobbying to get a coal reclamation bill in the state,” Pfister said.
Charter went to work for the NPRC in the early 1970s, Pfister said, which is when she met Steve Charter. The couple married, worked as cowboys for a time, and eventually bought the family ranch in the Bull Mountains.
Charter lived what she preached, Pfister said. The house the Charters lived in west of Roundup uses passive solar energy.
Asked what she thought was most important to Charter, Pfister said, “I would say probably her family and preservation of the land.”
“Jeannie’s been loyal to her values and to her commitments,” she said.
Another close friend, state Rep. Margie McDonald of Billings, has known Charter since 1977. Jeanne and Steve Charter were some of the first people to start using ecological grazing management practices, McDonald said.
As well as friends, McDonald said she and Charter were colleagues and allies in working for sound conservation, renewable energy and healthy local foods.
“She’s always been a real inspiration for me and a real intellectual leader for a lot of people because she was always three steps ahead,” McDonald said. “She was brilliant.”
McDonald called Charter one of the unsung heroes in the state.
“The entire time I’ve known her, she’s been on the cutting edge of creating a positive community that’s very grass-roots and local and sustainable and renewable and ecologically sound,” McDonald said. “That’s been a hallmark of her entire life.”