Anna Finkenauer: Working With the Wild West

The swift moving waters of the Missouri River provide an amazing vantage point from which to observe the complex history that has taken place along it’s banks. Awe-inspiring rock formations such as the Hole In The Wall and the Citadel encourage one to think long and hard about the geologic forces that must have gone into their making. If the climate out here is strong enough to mold and shape a substance as tough as rock, it is hard to imagine what it can do to the humans who have attempted to eek out a living here. It is clear to see by the number of abandoned homesteads we have passed along the way that life in the wild west was not easy.

However, that has not stopped people from attempting to any way. Countless federal programs such as the Homestead Act, Enlarged Homestead Act and the New Deal tried to encourage the ownership and development of Montana’s vast stretches of prairie because to them, undeveloped land was wasted land. Manifest Destiny propaganda and newly built railroads fueled the movement of thousands of people out here. They brought with them dreams of establishing successful farms and creating a comfortable life for their families, but after a few years it became apparent that this landscape was not going to be easy to settle into.

Virtually all of the native peoples that inhabited this land before white settlers were nomads who followed their food sources around. Agriculture was nonexistent because the plants and animals here must be highly specialized to survive in the dramatic and extreme weather. They have coevolved for millions of years to be able to do this, and introduced agricultural species simply could not compete with that. Top predators such as grizzly bears and coyotes know that they cannot stay in the same place for long because the land is quickly depleted. However, when homesteaders arrived, they were expected to stay in the same place for long enough to develop the land. This expectation proved to be detrimental to their ability to survive out here.

As I float down the Missouri River today, I can still see the ruins of their valiant attempts to control this wild landscape. It must have been unbelievably challenging and at times terrifying to be the first white settlers to move here. I harbor a deep respect for their courage and independence to come out to Montana, and it is sad that they were not able to succeed. The dry arid environment was different then any other land they had seen or lived on before and they did not know how to properly manage it. However, what they did was immensely important because it forced us to realize that we cannot always change the land, sometimes we need to change for it.

It is encouraging and inspirational to see that many modern day ranchers are taking this to heart. Ranching has traditionally been destructive on the dry, harsh prairies of Montana because cows graze the grass to the dirt and trample down vegetation in sensitive river riparian zones. Cows may still be doing this in some sections of the Missouri and other rivers throughout the state, but people such as Blackfoot Challenge founder Jim Stone are realizing the value in working with the landscape rather than against it. New innovations in the industry such as cow ponds, which bring water to the cows instead of having them go to the river, are allowing ranchers to continue their livelihoods with less of an impact on these sensitive areas. I believe this is proof that we can have a sustainable lifestyle in the wild west if we are willing to readjust some of our old habits.

This all sounds far easier on paper than it would be to execute in real life. It has long been the American tendency to attempt to control the land rather than work with it, and this attitude will be hard to reverse. However, there is a change starting to happen. Ranchers like Jim are at the forefront of a sustainability movement that has the potential to create a harmonious, rather then exploitive, relationship with the land. The Citadel and the Hole in the Wall show us all that something beautiful can be created from the harsh winds and winding rivers of this landscape. Will we be able to make something beautiful out of it as well?

Catie DeMets: History in Plain View

We were in the middle of nowhere. The flat plains stretched infinitely into the dimming horizon. We had no cell phone reception, no way to communicate with our friends or family, and no trees to retreat behind in moments of introspection. Though this harsh, windswept landscape seemed to hide nothing nor allow anything to hide, it is burdened with a long history that we’d learned about over the past few days during our time at the American Prairie Reserve.

I reflected on this history and our learning as I gazed into the vast expanse. While we’d spent so much time on the Missouri River discussing humans’ destruction of the plains and the river through cattle grazing and inappropriate agricultural practices, our time at the American Prairie Reserve (APR) had shown me that humans can very effectively channel their efforts to restore the prairie to its natural state. We had the opportunity to witness this firsthand as we spoke with important leaders at the APR and helped them with a yurt-building project in return for their time and for allowing us to stay at their established yurt camp at the APR. We learned of how they are working to purchase and accumulate 3.5 million acres of land, including the BLM grazing leases attached to private properties, around the central APR area, north of the Missouri River Breaks and the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. This, in essence, is an effort to preserve one of the last remaining viable temperate grasslands—the least protected of any type of ecosystem—in the world. They mostly rely on wealthy individuals to donate large chunks of money to the cause, and it takes some convincing to persuade these people to donate money. Hence the yurt camp that we helped to build; here, the APR will host wealthy donors for overnight stays so they can experience the APR firsthand.

We found this to be an intriguing philosophy, and grappled with our inner conflicts regarding whether we can support an effort that mostly relies on wealthy donors giving money to a private organization. But as we stood overlooking a genetically pure, brucellosis-free herd of bison that the Reserve has restored to the landscape and watched their dark figures lumber away across the prairie single-file, looking so correct in that place, we were filled with gratitude that a small group of people has worked so hard to make this a reality. It didn’t matter where the money came from, because it was being channeled into a good cause.

And bison aren’t the only creatures being restored to the prairie. Yesterday afternoon, we’d spent three hours choosing and researching a species that we would each represent at the Council of All Beings, our exam for the second section of the course. Poring over books in the sunny yurt and scribbling madly, we each became familiar with the history of our creature on the plains or in the Breaks. We connected our learning with our knowledge on Native American history, white homesteaders’ influence, and changes in land use and policy over the last three hundred or so years. Many life forms have undergone significant changes during this time period, resulting in their partial or total disappearance from the prairie. After we’d finished our research, we presented our findings to one another at the Council of All Beings meeting in the candlelit yurt, dressed to resemble our being: Brooke as river algae, Lincoln as prong-horned antelope, Rosie as cottonwood tree, Robert as sage grass, Sam as bald eagle, Anna as beaver, and me as bison. I was enthusiastic that the APR was working to restore the natural state of each of these species in their efforts.

Alas, the many human actions that have influenced the land and disturbed its natural state are very obvious on the prairie; this land hides nothing and its history, though invisible in some ways, is reflected in every plant, every animal that is or isn’t there. The prairie’s transparency, but also its deep mystery, allows me to free my mind of the information clutter I continue to accumulate as the daylight wanes and the fall progresses. Here, I can just be present in the clear air, observing as the horizon drops into the abyss and the stars appear, unobscured and illuminating.

Catie DeMets: The Bob Marshall

On September 1st, the day after our uphill climb, we awoke to a stunning sunrise in the mountain meadow at the Nanny Creek headwaters. It rained the night before, clearing the summery smoke blown toward us from a forest fire in Idaho and making way for autumn. Indeed, the chilly y air had a decidedly autumnal feel as we sat in a circle having a morning discussion of plant ecology and biodiversity. As a prelude to our plant study assignment that we’d spend most of the day completing, our instructors, Dave and Brooke, introduced us to the idea of ecological refugia. Defined as a protective growing environment where an organism can retreat to when its normal environment is disturbed, an ecological refugium houses a unique set of organisms. Perhaps our meadow was a prime example of one.

We concluded our discussion for the morning, and Rosie, Robert, and I spent some time doing yoga in the browning grasses of the meadow. The past few days had been a taxing transition for each of us, who traveled from far away to be in this new place, to sleep in tents on chilly nights with people we didn’t yet know, and to think of how we could have been comfortably moving back to college with our friends. But at last, we were settling into our new tent-dwelling existence and beginning to focus on the environment around us. I meditated upon this as I held downward dog pose alongside a person who I just met last week.
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Rosie Macy: The Bob Marshall

August 31st, 2012 was the second day of our backpacking expedition in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area; little did we know, it would also be the most grueling and difficult. By the time we set out, I was already in poor spirits: I had woken up uncomfortable and exhausted, due to a deflated sleeping pad. Our ultimate goal was the pass between the Bruce Creek and Nanny Creek headwaters. A jumbled mess of topo lines told us we had a very long uphill climb—about 2,000 feet. Soon enough, our hike soon turned steeply uphill, zigzagging back and forth across mountainsides. None of us were quite used to our packs yet, so we took frequent water breaks.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness, 2011

We continued on. By now everyone was silent, breathing heavily, and pausing frequently as we lumbered up slopes that seemed to have no end. Though I was far behind those in front of me, when I looked behind me the rest of the group lagged even further, until I could see no one at all. I began to feel apprehensive about my decision to take this course. Was it too physically demanding for me? Would I even survive this day, or would I collapse from weakness? (It was only about 1:30 at this point, and my pack was probably 35 pounds. I was definitely being more than a little dramatic.)
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