Bay Area billionaire raising hackles in Montana

The Associated Press
Monday November 13, 2000

GRASS RANGE, Mont. – California computer billionaire Thomas M. Siebel has angered some central Montana ranchers by tearing down two historic buildings on the N Bar Ranch he bought last June. 

Former owner and manager Tom Elliott, neighboring ranchers and historians are dismayed. 

“I think it’s a tragedy, personally. It’s so senseless,” Elliott said. 

Siebel, a San Mateo, Calif. software mogul ranked No. 105 in Forbes magazine’s latest list of the world’s richest people, is worth an estimated $4.2 billion. 

The two buildings he razed were on the National Register of Historic Places. N Bar Ranch manager Doug Groats said he had no idea the buildings has special status. 

“I wasn’t aware that they needed to be protected,” Groats said. “We have all those houses that if we just let them sit there the mice and the rats would take over.” 

Darrell Abbott, who lives a few miles west of the N Bar’s headquarters, said Siebel has torn down the cook house, a storage shed made of rock and an old homestead known as the Pike place. 

The cookhouse was built in 1885 of square-hewn logs. The rock house, built in the 1930s, housed the electrical generating equipment for the ranch complex. The structures were two of 13 buildings at the ranch headquarters listed in 1991 by the Elliotts on the National Register of Historic Places. 

A one-and-a-half story farm house built in 1930 and also listed on the register, was moved off the property. 

“We like to be notified if they’re going to move any of the buildings or tear them down,” said Kate Hampton of the Montana Historical Society. “Moved buildings lose their integrity of association.” 

But since the buildings are privately owned, the society has no say about what happens to the structures. 

Hampton said large cattle operations from the turn of the century are significant to the state’s history. Few of them are left. 

Siebel said he intends to be a good neighbor. He plan to run the N Bar as a commercial cattle operation, he said, much like the 70,000-acre Dearborn Ranch he owns near Wolf Creek. According to state officials familiar with the operation, the Dearborn’s land is conservatively managed to maintain adequate grass for cattle and wildlife. Although public hunting isn’t allowed on the ranch, some non-fee hunting by ranch employees and friends is allowed. 

“What we’re trying to do is clean it up,” Siebel said of the N Bar. “We want to improve the habitat for the wildlife, improve the riparian habitat. We want to ranch it in a responsible way.” 

Siebel said the beauty of the ranch attracted him to the place. He spent time on the McKay ranch near Red Lodge as a youngster and worked on a ranch near Bellevue, Idaho, after graduating from college, he said. 

It was during his youth at Red Lodge that he fell in love with Montana. 

“Hopefully (the N Bar) will be a showcase ranch,” Siebel said. “I think it’s just a great resource. We want to improve it so it’s one of the great ranches in the state.” 

Groats said the ranch will employ only four people to tend its 1,000 head of cattle. Such a small staff will require fewer facilities, and that’s one reason the older buildings were torn down or removed. 

“We had a gal who needed a house. We had no one to stay in the house and it needed to be taken care of,” he said of the home that was moved off the ranch.  

The rest of the buildings will be fixed up and will continue to be used.