Kory Kirby: Simplify

Kory KirbyGarbage trucks, dogs barking, lights, traffic, noise, people. Emails, phone service, Wi-Fi, TV’s, screens, connection with the world. Chaos, hecticness, stresses consuming our lives. Day by day, week by week, month by month we bite off more then we can chew. Forty to Fifty hour work weeks are common ground for a majority of society. In attempts to simplify our lives we leave it all behind. Abandoning familiarity and comfort, exiting what is traditional for the masses we head out for the wild, where life is distilled down to the essence. There are simply less things to worry about, less on your mind. In the wild, I’ve noticed the little things. I’ve realized that pieces often slip through my fingertips, slide past my eyes and get lost in my mind. That’s why I search to “simplify.” Sleeping, eating, and water are the essence of life. Everything else can at times create unnecessary complexities.

We live in a consumptive society where it is so easy to have more then we need. Taking a step back and realizing that less is actually more can be an overwhelming, mind-altering realization. Grocery stores are filled with temptations and instant pleasures. In the backcountry you only bring what can be carried on your back.

It’s the little things like relaxing with good friends after a long days hike. It’s uniting with those friends under a good meal, and appreciating a full stomach. It’s passing around a bag of soggy animal crackers and eating each crushed crumb one by one. It’s when an onion is starting to go bad, and a group member at lunch asks, “Anyone want some onion?” Ears perk up, smiles spread across the small community at the brief existence of a surplus of onion. It’s a fresh sock day, taking the crusty, smelly socks off, and sliding your feet into freshness.

It’s hiking all day in a rainstorm, and appreciating the beauty that is rain in the desert. A dry desolate, landscape turns into something polar opposite, something spectacular. Starting with the cryptobiotic soil, lichen and mosses that turn green in the presence of that oh-so-precious water. The grasses, shrubs, and flowers all awaken to the presence of rain falling from the sky. It’s looking at a flower, filled with water on each pedal, and only then does the true power of rain show itself. The trees brighten green as well; stand just a little bit taller; happy to join the party that is rain.

It’s feeling the warmth of the sun on your face after a cold night or the rain dissipates, feeling grateful for the sun’s rays warming your soul. It’s the blue sky against red canyon walls, making the colors pop into your brain to forever be remembered. Its turning your headlamp off to a full moon, and letting moonlight guide you through your nightly deeds. As the moon cycles into darkness, hundreds of stars are revealed to the naked eye each night. It’s standing with your neck cranked upward far away from light pollution of society, where a deeper universe is uncovered. Thinking to myself, “I’ve never seen the cosmos so bright before…” It’s acknowledging the night skies ability to fill the brains capacity and struggle to digest all its taking in, feeling so small in such a profound world. It’s sleeping right under those starts, waking up at two in the morning, opening your eyes, seeing them right there smack up against you!

It’s the little things like having a working zipper on your sleeping bag to wrap yourself up into a cocoon for feelings of comfort and warmth. It’s having a warm fire at night to ease your mind from darkness, the crackling, shimmering, dancing flames more entertaining than any TV. It’s sitting by that fire with friends and companions late into the night, talking about hopes, dreams, passions, and realities for the future.

It’s having enough fuel for boiling water after a long day to make a hot drink. Sipping on tea, coffee or hot chocolate reminiscing on all accomplished during our last 12, 24, 48, 72 or thousands of hours before… Feeling the warmth inside your stomach, spreading through your veins, creating a sense of content for the moment. It’s living in the moment, for the moment, not trying to struggle through a miserable week, only for some brief time on the weekend. Making every day, minute, and second count knowing that your time in this world is limited. If always looking to the future for something different, easier, better, it’s easy to forget to live.

British philosopher Alan Watts bestows his views on how to live in happiness in today’s world where society makes us believe we have to follow the paths of others. He says, “its often easy to continue doing things you don’t like doing, in order to keep doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid! Better to have a short life filled with what you like doing then a long one spent in a miserable way.” Leaving behind complications, and added stresses, living the past 48 days doing exactly what I want to be doing has excited my soul with endless possibilities for my life.

It’s the little things like sitting listening… listening to what true silence sounds like. It’s strange to try and describe “silence,” it’s really something that you have to feel to believe. It’s using this silence to clear your mind, and become one with yourself and the natural world. It’s feeling deep in your heart the healing power that is nature. Anxiety, stress, depression, violence, anger, and unhealthiness all relieved from leaving a complex world behind.

It’s acknowledging how lucky you are to experience places so special. It’s feeling grateful for all these little things, and really taking time to notice what’s right in front of you. When life gets crazy, it can be hard at times to acknowledge what’s slapping you in the face. I’ve been ignoring a lot of things in my life, and since I left an old one behind, a new one picks up the pieces.

I remember one night specifically where simplicity was summed up in one phrase. After a gluttonous meal of nachos, Ben leans back in his chair, a smile spreading ear to ear, he states, “I’m tingly from the shoulders up, ahhh, its really really quite perfect.”

Anna Tolle: More than two sides to the story of coal

IMG_1730When I was younger I could pretty easily be convinced of one side of an environmental issue if that side was in line with my current beliefs. For example, it was easy to believe that coal (and everything related to its extraction, production, and use) was bad because I was told so and I didn’t know the other side of the story.

However, after 4 years of environmental studies classes at university, I’ve come to realize that many issues are multifaceted and we must study all angles before forming a concrete belief. This is more apparent than ever during my Wild Rockies Field Institute Cycle the Rockies course. Everything we’ve read presents different viewpoints and new sides to issues I hadn’t thought of before. The people we’ve spoken with have presented new ideas and stumped us with some pretty big questions. There are pros and cons to coal, and different people have different belief systems that determine, in their eyes, which are the pros and which are the cons.

So far, the two general sides have been presented like this:

Pros: reliability, relative affordability, abundance of coal, job creation, and momentum (we already have the infrastructure).

Cons: emissions, land rights issues, water contamination, poor environmental remediation, and coal getting shipped overseas.

Some people may place different aspects in different categories.

Talking to different individuals involved at both ends of the spectrum has made me way more informed, but also still indecisive. People fighting coal expansion, like Steve Charter (a rancher who grazes his cattle above the signal Peak coal mine), try to understand the coal companies and get along. Similarly, the foremen we spoke with at Signal Peak also try to understand the rancher’s point of view, while admitting that they usually don’t see eye to eye on most issues.

Both groups, ranchers and miners, have equally valid arguments explaining why coal is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, necessary or unnecessary. We are discussing all viewpoints as a group and will ultimately decide, as individuals, where our value systems lie and what we think about the issue.

I don’t think the issue is black-or-white. With what we’ve learned so far, I’ve come to understand that coal will have to stay for a little while longer while we work to develop new technologies for alternative energy, find ways to create jobs in the sector, and get more people on board using grants and incentives. I do believe that we can’t continue to depend on coal to create electricity the way we currently do. We will have to shift to new ways of making electricity, and it won’t be all that easy. Steve Charter made a good analogy: typewriters used to be the leading technology in typing and employed many skilled people to produce them. But eventually, that technology was replaced with a new one and some jobs were lost in the shift. Most people would argue that we’re in a better place now because of it. I think something similar will need to happen to transition from coal (and other fossil fuels) to cleaner sources of energy. We just need to make sure we are as well-prepared as possible for the coming shift to make it as smooth as possible.

Austin Gilbert: So, What’s Next?

0614151740-2As we begin our journey out of Billings, one thing about this part of Montana quickly becomes clear: it is very sparsely populated. By humans, that is – as we ride along two-lane highways, sometimes there is little to be seen besides cow pastures and the occasional dirt road. Welcome to Big Sky country. It’s almost hard to believe that this seemingly empty place is actually the frontline in a heated battle over energy production in Montana, the United States, and even the world.

Beneath this barren landscape lies a vast coal bed. The nearby Signal Peak coal mine in the Bull Mountains was recently granted a coal lease to mine over 60 million tons, in addition to other coal seams already in its possession. The Signal Peak mine is Montana’s only underground coal mine. For the most part, it utilizes the “longwall” mining technique. This method results in subsidence, which is when the underground voids leftover after the coal is mined are allowed to collapse. This can result in cracks and crevices on the surface. Land affected includes mine property, federal/public land, and private ranches.

Now this is where things get interesting. Typically, when we talk about opposition to coal, we talk about “liberal” opposition to pollution and other environmental impacts. But things are a little different here. It is a battle of economics, of land rights, of property damage, and of liability. Many ranching families have worked the land here for generations, and they fear that mining expansion will threaten their way of life. Water is a limited resource in these parts. There are concerns that the aquifers and other natural water sources in the Bull Mountains may be permanently altered by the subsidence, which would endanger the operations of many ranches.

This time around, the fight isn’t a partisan one. There are liberals and conservatives on both sides, debating the value of ranch land, mining jobs, and coal’s role in the greater Montana economy.

The fact is coal is declining as a power source in Montana and the nation. This decline is the result of stricter air quality regulations that are increasing the cost of operating coal plants, the dropping price of natural gas, and the Sierra Club’s surprisingly successful “Beyond Coal” campaign. This campaign has been effectively preventing the construction of new coal plants as well as shutting down older ones that don’t meet the new air quality regulations. The recent closure of the Corette plant is an example of coal’s decline in the face of increasing operational costs.

All that being said, coal is an important energy source for both Montana and the nation. Not only does the coal industry provide more jobs than renewable alternatives would, it also provides roughly 40% of our total energy. It is consistent, reliable, and usually cheap. Even if costs are rising, the vast infrastructure for coal-based energy is already in place. Furthermore, our country is very rich in coal deposits, so dependence on coal is neither a national security risk nor a resort to imports, like oil.

Even so, our priorities are shifting away from coal’s pollution and rising costs. The question is what takes its place? According to Lisa Perry at Northwestern Energy, hydroelectric power will not step up to fill the gap – the environmental effects of dams make it too difficult to add new hydroelectric facilities. In fact, the current trend is to remove current dams, not build new ones. Solar comes to mind, but the manufacture of solar panels requires massive amounts of heat, and therefore energy – energy that must first be provided by another source, such as coal. Not to mention the need for additional infrastructure and the installation of solar farms themselves. In Montana, wind seems to be the leading renewable energy source, but current technology doesn’t seem prepared to provide a consistent supply of energy. And, of course, we need additional infrastructure if wind energy is to be a solution. Northwestern Energy currently offsets the “stochastic” nature of wind energy with more controllable sources such as natural gas, which, for the time being, is very cheap and has far fewer emissions than other fossil fuels. Unfortunately, gas reserves will eventually be used up and prices will rise. Not to mention that natural gas extraction is closely linked to that of oil. Considering this externality, maybe natural gas isn’t so clean after all. Gas might be the answer for now, but… then what?

Whatever energy sources we choose will likely be selected by economics. We are adopting natural gas as its cost drops below coals, and will adopt the most affordable available source as soon as its cost rivals that of natural gas.IMG_1724

Cory Horton: New Hope in The West

Cycle the Rockies group photoOn June 10, 2015, I left Missoula, Montana headed for Billings via I-90 east. The occasion for my trip is a 28 day bike ride through central and western Montana, on which I will be accompanied by three other students and two instructors. The purpose of our almost 700 mile venture is to educate ourselves as best we can on energy and climate change in this great state properly dubbed “the last best place.”

Like most people I associate energy and climate change discussion with a swath of negative and depressing facts; the earth is warming, the sea is rising and we are only compounding the problem with an increasing population. When discussing these issues it is difficult to avoid these terrible facts. However, after just four days on the course I remain extremely optimistic. Moreover, many of the facts I have learned, and people we have spoken with have shown me that there are many reasons to permanently ditch the common hopeless outlook and replace it with my new found optimism.

The first positive facts came from a man named David Healow. The fact that men as intelligent and enthusiastic as David exist, and are focusing on renewable energy is reason enough to be optimistic about the energy situation in this great state. Though David is a doctor by trade, he has an incredible amount of time and money invested into wind energy in Montana. He has used his excess salary to personally invest into the technology. In addition to this financial contribution he has a fascination with aviation and the physics of airfoils which has allowed him to contribute to the technological advancements in small scale wind production.

We met with David on the banks of a small lake on the outskirts of Billings. As soon as he began talking it was clear that this was a man with an incredible comprehension of the world around him. He had so much knowledge in so many areas we often found ourselves needing to ask him to pause for an explanation in layman’s terms.

Once David started on the topic of wind energy and utility companies it was clear that the option for renewable energy in Montana is much greater than it would seem. However, as with all shining moments, this one came with a speed bump or catch if you will. Montana has the ability to generate an incredible amount of wind energy, enough to sell the excess to other states. However, the utility provider, Northwest Energy, and the lawmakers it lobbies with have put a cap on the amount of residential wind energy production that can be supplied to the grid. These residential producers are known as qualified facilities or Q.F.s and they are limited to a 50 megawatt hour contribution. Furthermore, it has a less than ideal policy relating to net metering. Net metering is what allows individual customers to sell power to the utility that they have generated through residential wind energy and solar panels.

To me, this is very exciting! In the past when learning about renewable energy such as wind and solar, the issue has always been collecting enough energy to replace our fossil fuels. But technology has come a long way. Industry and available financing have also made significant advancements. Now the one thing standing between renewable resources and those resources becoming available to the public is a few lawmakers in Helena and a few top dogs at North West Energy.

If I have learned anything about Montana and the people that live here in the five years since I moved here, it is that Montanans are tired of corporate greed taking advantage of this awe-inspiring landscape we all call home. This trend began with the reign of the copper kings in Butte and Anaconda and it continued for some time. However, in the 1970’s the people of this great state banded together to re-write our constitution so as to ensure this pattern would not go on. They did so by guaranteeing all citizens the right to clean water and air. This right is continually challenged by the mining and burning of coal to support our energy needs.

Once again it is our turn to band together. As residents of this state, we must educate ourselves on the renewable resources that are available. In doing so we will be able to stand up to the illogical corporate greed that is allowing the continued pollution of our air and water. Preventing this pollution will ensure clean air and water, which is our constitutional right! There are options available to us in the ways we get our energy and only we as Montanans can prevent the trends of the past from continuing in the future. Doing so will ensure that this beautiful landscape will remain intact for generations to come. To allow this beauty to continue we must stand up to our utility providers! Demand Northwest Energy to remove the 50 megawatt hour limit on qualified facilities as to allow green energy to flow through our grid and replace the archaic forms of energy generation that remain in use today.

Lindsey Freitag: Following Footsteps

Lindsey FreitagWalking through the loose canyon sand, I struggle to keep a fast pace. I pause to look up and see the streaked sandstone cliffs enveloping me. The wind begins to funnel down these walls and blows sand into my face. As I turn around to escape the pain, I see my footsteps disappear behind me into the ripples of small sand dunes sculpted by the gusts. It makes me wonder, how many other footsteps has the wind erased from this landscape’s history? We continue our hike and begin to see more permanent traces of past people who also travelled in these varnished canyons. The idea of retracing their same footsteps, seeing the same landscape, and experiencing the same scorching sun connects me to the people of this land. It is a deeper connection than just reading their stories from a textbook or news article. But being in the very setting as these people creates a profound sense of respect and actualization of the struggles, dangers, and beauty they encountered.

The first ancient footsteps we retraced were those of the Archaic people. Rounding a dry riverbed, I have my eyes fixed on the large jutting rocks, which I attempt to walk over, making sure my poles and feet have a solid placement. It is not until I hear someone says, “look up” that I peal my eyes away from the ground and gaze at the three hundred foot Navajo Sandstone cliff. At first I just see the black streaks of desert varnish staining the tan rock. But about a third of the way up the wall, I discover faint red- brown figures painted above an outcropping ledge. If it was not for their triangulated body shapes, typical of Archaic styles, the pictographs could have easily been overlooked. We begin to climb the crumbling sand hill in order to get a closer look.

Pulling myself over the final edge, I see the figures for first the time in their actual scale. These  pictographs are huge, the tall ghostly figures tower three feet higher than me when I stand next to them. There are also engraved petroglyphs, many big horned sheep and maybe some ears of corn. Perhaps these were added later by people during the Fremont or Anasazi period, as corn did not arrive to the Colorado Plateau until about 100 BC, way past the time of the Archaic people.

Sitting on this cliff, I fall back in time, imagining a group of Archaic men, women, and children also enjoying the view. I see young men painting these figures with their hands, as elders instruct them on the techniques. The women are sitting around in a gossip circle crushing clay and adding water to make paint for their husbands and sons. Occasionally, they are running after the playful children who get too close to the edge. I realize that these people are not just characters from tales with lifestyles of a different world, but are tangible and experience everyday pain, love and laughter. They were probably doing the same thing, as we were that moment, joking and enjoying each other’s company.

As we begin to descend, I gaze out and feel so small in the landscape. It is unreal to think that this scenery and grandeur has practically remained the same since these native people were painting these pictures over 3,000 years ago.  You cannot say the same however with most landscapes in this world today. This is why Horseshoe Canyon and other remote areas of the Colorado Plateau are so unique.

We heave on our packs and continue to follow the corridors shaped by the once powerful river. It is not long before we find ourselves retracing someone else’s footprints. As afternoon snack time approaches, a cave high off the canyon floor is spotted. I follow the group up yet another steep, sandy slope. With every footstep I take, I slide back, making the ascent more challenging. As we explore, I find more evidence of the past people who had ventured into the same cave. On the cold wall, there is a charcoal etching with a date of 1916. Like the pictographs, I am amazed again to see the preservation of such marks.

Sitting in the cave, my imagination begins to drift to this year. I see a man wearing worn trousers and a sweat stained shirt, leading his packhorse through the heat of the day. In desperate need of some shade, he spots a cave in the distance. He ties up his horse and makes the difficult climb to the entrance, where he greeted by a front of cool air and a silty smooth floor. Feeling at home, he makes camp and starts a fire. Maybe he was contemplating his journey for the next day as he transported his beaver pelts to the market. He dampens the fire and grabs a charred stick etching his name, with no expectation of it lasting a hundred years. As I run my hands through the fine silt of the alcove’s floor, I wonder what was in store for this gentleman next. With a world war approaching in the coming year, he could have to leave this beautiful landscape to serve his country. When we return to our packs at the bottom of the canyon, I speculate if he ever returned to this area or if these were the only footprints he ever made. I go to sleep that night under the same night sky that man looked at a hundred years ago.

The next morning, I wake up the warmth of the rising sun. It is a layover day and we have the opportunity to explore Blue John Canyon, whose recent fame was created by the footsteps of a survivor. A few years ago, a canyoneer named Aaron Ralston ventured solo into this canyon hoping to trace its route. However, in the blink of an eye, and at the mercy of Mother Nature, he found himself trapped. His arm was pinned by a falling rock, making any hope of leaving impossible. After 127 hours of little food and water, he attempts an extreme measure in order to live: cutting off his jammed arm with his pocketknife. As he makes a desperate journey for help, running and bleeding through this canyon to the nearby national park. We begin hiking, opposite the direction Aaron was stumbling. Soon I begin to the feel the heat of the sun and desperately reach for my Nalgene. It takes us almost an hour and half in loose sand and rugged terrain to make it the area where he made his final rappel before running deliriously through the heat. I begin to understand the true miracle and determination of this survivor story. Being in this spot now, I am astounded by what people are able to accomplish when the will to survive is the only motivation. It is this contrasting danger and beauty of these canyons, which has attracted people for thousands of years.

While these old tracks have allowed me to relate and inquire about the past, it is the future footprints in this canyon that concern me the most. With uranium, tar sands, oil, gas and coal reserves readily available, the next print left in the sand maybe those of bulldozers. It will be up to people who truly care about the culture and splendor of the Colorado Plateau to protect these stories. Therefore, as we approach the Green River I turn around and look at the untouched red cliffs and bright green cottonwoods, and hope that the only changes in the coming years will be those of footprints left by speechless hikers, curious students, or inspired preservationists.

Montana Week 1: Painful Energy  by Sara Vargo

Cycling into Ryegate, MT

My legs are burning, sweat collects in beads on my forehead and cars whiz by me at 60 and above. My labored breathing seems to fall into rhythm with the sounds of passing cars and I have to will myself to keep my thumb glued to my handlebars and not shove it out in silent prayer someone will pick me up. Midwest and westerners are both known for being warm and hospitable so I can’t imagine it’d be too long before a trucker takes pity on me and lets me into their cab. Instead, I ignore my screaming quads, put my head down and push forward. THIS is bike touring.

Although this is only the very beginning of a month long journey across Montana, I already feel like I’ve learned a lot about this grand state, both socially, and regarding energy.

Things I’ve learned so far:

  • Montana “failed” at deregulating their energy distribution system and since 2007 have returned to a vertically integrated one:  The current debate raging in the state is over net-metering. Net-metering allows those that want to produce their own energy to fairly connect to the grid and be able to use baseline energy provided by fossil fuels and also provide their excess energy to the rest of the energy system. Major Montana energy providers are making it difficult for net-metering to be easily accessible but as more and more Montanans want to remove themselves from the typical energy system, residents are becoming more vocal about their desire for a change.
  • Hydroelectric dams are relatively common (and cheap) energy for the state but present a multitude of problems regarding aquatic life and ecological habitats:  At Northwestern Energy, Lisa Perry told us a friend of hers in fishery services was working with fish ladders to increase the population of a certain trout species in a hydroelectric dam facility. Since the introduction of her ladder, only eight total trout have successfully made it through the dam to their mating grounds, proving how endangered the species is and the possible implications of water energy. Some hydroelectric power is produced using “run of the river” dams which do not hold water back. This is actually more common than reservoir dams in Montana and I had thought it was relatively rare. Though the aquatic habitats can still be threatened, there is (arguably) less threat here than in reservoir dams that do not allow water flow
  • Oil spills happen in rivers too!:  At Alexis Bonogofsky’s ranch outside of Billings, she detailed her perspective of the 2011 Exxon oil spill into the Yellowstone River, where her home sits just above. The crude oil that spilled from the river during unusually high water levels covered a large part of her livestock’s grazing land and has lasting implications, even today, including sterile land, overrun weeds and lasting oil rings on the trees near the river. This was new to me, as I previously thought oil spills were only a concern in oceans. Considering river currents move just as fast, sometimes faster, than ocean currents, the implications of river oil spills can be just as massive. The miles of crude oil pipeline that run through rivers in the U.S, and particularly the American west, make the likelihood of river oil spills being just as big of a threat to aquatic life as oceanic spills. Alexis has since devoted her life to preserving tribal and natural lands in the eastern part of the state and plans to someday build an off the grid house on her property.
  • Signal Peak Coal Mine mines 90% of its coal for international use:  Montana holds massive coal reserves, larger than the state of Wyoming’s, but has chosen not to extract this resource as fully as Wyoming, so far. While overseas nations, mostly located in Asia, are still demanding the mined coal, the current decrease in domestic demand is a positive thing from an environmental perspective, but negative for the nearby towns and the state’s economy. Signal Peak has been implementing usage of Waste Disposal systems, attempting to reduce the amount of waste product produced at the mine while at the same time reclaiming surrounding areas of the mine to their natural state.

While this certainly isn’t all I’ve learned, these are things I found particularly interesting.

Using only our own energy to fuel our course on energy and climate change has created a unique perspective on the discussions and issues regarding energy production and distribution. Though our class is based in and focused on Montana, it is easy to apply what we’re learning to a national and global scale. While riding our bikes everywhere we go, the use (and overuse) of energy becomes more prevalent. Though Montana, and especially Missoula, is full of bikers, there are vastly more cars; this is also comparable at a national and international scale. Montana is a centralized state, meaning trucks pass by at higher rates than, say, a coastal state.

Because we are on bikes, the disconnect between us and fossil fuels is more obvious and easier to understand. I started counting the cars that passed by me and did some quick math: if 16 cars pass by me in 1 mile, than in 20 miles 320 cars will pass by and in 700 miles… a lot of cars and trucks will be guzzling gas on any given day. Of course, anyone could consider this without traveling across a state on a bike, but here we can really feel the difference, for me in my quads and lower back.

Though we’ve read and so far learned a good amount about the opposition to new coal mines, crude oil pipelines and fossil-fuel powered plants, we’ve heard little about reducing gasoline consumption. Gas is also a form of energy and an increasingly used one in a world of growing convenience and fast-paced lifestyle. Why limit our energy conservation practices to residential, home usage? Let’s extend that to our transportation. Take the slower route, powered by legs or increase public transit use and carpooling. Small steps can make a difference in the home and on the freeway, even if it means tired thighs and sweaty palms.