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?