Hannah Plowright: Mining for common ground

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Cycle the Rockies students tour the Corette coal-fired power plant, which will be mothballed next year.

In theory, some of our speakers would seem to be bashing heads in terms of what they are trying to achieve and who they are trying to help. The tour of the Corette coal-fired power plant, the Charter ranch, Alexis Bonogofsky and Mike Scott who work for National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club, respectively. These are some of things we’ve done and people we’ve listened to so far, and they all shed unique light on the topic of energy. But I believe that at the heart of it, they share core values.

For starters, I saw that all the people we’ve met with so far are extremely dedicated to what they do. At the Corette plant, we met people that had worked there for 30-plus years. Over that time, there seems to have developed a culture of pride in the plant. Our tour guide, Bobbi, clearly demonstrated that, with her unrelenting enthusiasm and honesty. She’s an engineer with deep understanding of all of the equipment, and joked about some of the especially temperamental pieces of machinery and their nicknames. Bobbi has formed friendships with her coworkers, stopping to talk with everyone. She’s a relatively new employee of nine years, compared to others who’ve worked there for more than 30. There’s a real sense of community at the plant. When we asked about the plant being mothballed, Bobbi said the morale among workers is very low.

The plant is closing due to new Clean Air Act regulations going into effect next year. They’ll require a device called a “bag house” to catch the pollutants released during the coal-burning process, costing around $38 million, funds which PPL is not willing to invest given the current wholesale power prices, according to news reports. Unfortunately for Corette employees, they’ll have to find jobs elsewhere, which is upsetting because many of them have dedicated a large part of their life in making that plant succeed. Bobbi also speaks with some bitterness about how she might lose her friends who are moving on from Billings. Continue reading

Kaya Juda-Nelson: Embracing discomfort

I don’t usually consider myself an angry person. I often experience a wide array of emotions, but rarely do I truly feel that hot passionate fury, bubbling up from my core. Today however, I felt it. Biking up this long, hot hill, full of Billings’ afternoon traffic, I felt so mad at every aspect of my situation. This anger was all consuming and I had to consciously breath deeply, and then it was suddenly over, replaced by heart-pumping exhilaration. The top of the hill arrived and my quads stopped burning and the pain from my malfunctioning pedals subsided, and as endorphins coursed through me, I remembered why I had just subjected myself to this uncomfortable situation. As I realized the sense of accomplishment brought about by the top of a long hill, and the thrill of using your body to its fullest capacity, the anger and confusion of discomfort was replaced with appreciation for this experience. This course is focused on studying energy and climate change in Montana while cycling across the state. While biking clearly represents sustainable transportation, this first hill experience made me think further into the connection between cycling and climate change.

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Ben Johnson: As the wheels begin to turn

CtR- BJ-1Three right hand turns off the interstate brings us to our first stop on this year’s Cycle the Rockies course. The Bonogofsky ranch sits on 100 acres, not to far from Billings. The boundaries of the property are clear enough. The trailer court on one side, where Alexis and Mike’s herd of goats have been known to escape to, prompting phone calls complaining of “goats gone wild.” Blue Creek, where Alexis and Mike once thought the goats would never have the gumption to cross (the goats did), a fenceline (“Make sure you have good fences before you get goats” Alexis tells us), and the only boundary it seems the goats haven’t breached: the river.

The Yellowstone River. It pushes on the banks now, the level down even from higher flows earlier this month. And down further still from when the river flooded in July 2011, bringing water into the lower pastures. That high water, paired with an inconveniently timed puncture of the oil pipeline six miles upstream (likely caused by fast-moving debris), left Alexis and Mike with a sheen of oil covering many acres of their land. Today, three years later, Mike is replanting those fields. Fields that have been largely depleted of native grasses and nutrients as a result of the flood, the subsequent cleanup, and a harsh winter wind that scoured away what was left of the topsoil. The cleanup itself involved the removal of the majority of oil affected vegetation. The machinery involved in the cleanup likely brought in the waves of weeds Alexis and Mike have seen since the spill.

We walk by the river, swatting the evening mosquitos and keeping a close eye on our legs, watching for the ticks we have been warned about. The students are enthralled by the story Alexis tells, hungry for this style of learning: understanding current events and issues on the local level, meeting the people involved and entrenched in these issues, and doing it in a way that puts us on the ground in a physical place, walking alongside the people that stand on any and all sides of an issue.

Tomorrow will bring a new personality with a new story, as will the next day. The people that are suing the BLM over the coal mine, then the people at the coal mine, and so on. But first, we will have to pack up those panniers for tomorrow’s ride, our first big step in our 650 mile journey.

-Ben Johnson, Instructor