Julien Rashid: Meditations on Bison, Wild Chives and Pad Thai

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It was a frigid and beautiful afternoon. The WRFI crew and I were taking an observational stroll. We were walking near the shore of Goat Lake, an isolated alpine lake close to the northern border of Waterton National Park in Canada. Every few minutes the sun would poke her head around a cloud, illuminating the verdant conifers, pellucid blue lake, and a panoply of wildflowers. Our pace was slow, our senses observant. We were attentive to the shape of every plant that glistened and the color of every animal that scattered. Being a naturalist is an intrinsic capability that every human has in order to observe nature’s patterns and to find her or his place within those patterns. On our walk, I liberated my imprisoned naturalist within. The key, I discovered, was attentiveness. Attentiveness using all of one’s senses is not only important for becoming a naturalist, but also for living a fulfilling life. For most of us students, it seems, this attentiveness had either been learned or refined since the beginning of the course. One particular event that led to the rediscovery of our attentiveness began ten minutes outside of Browning, Montana, across a cattle guard, down a gravel road, and over a few grassy knolls.

In the middle of open grassland, we met with a man named Sheldon Carlson, a member of the Blackfeet tribe who is in charge of maintaining around 200 undomesticated bison for the tribe. Bison reintroduction in Montana has been a contentious development for the last several years. Many ranchers worry about the potential spread of brucellosis, a disease that causes miscarriages in livestock. They also fret about the potential grazing competition between the bison and their livestock for public lands. On top of this, bison are not docile animals like cattle. They are capable of growing up to 2600 pounds, are defensive of their herd, and carry no qualms about charging perceived threats—including humans. And yet, there we were, less than 50 yards from an overwhelming herd of 200 undomesticated bison with Sheldon, their sole caretaker.

Sheldon was a burly, warm-hearted, middle-aged man with double-braids and a plaid flannel. He pulled up next to us in a pickup, the bed of which carried several gorgeous, smelly animal hides. When speaking with Sheldon, one gets a sense that he has a special respect and appreciation for the bison. He understands their movements as a herd and recognizes each individual and her or his personality as if they were old friends. Sheldon was not a bison whisperer, and he had not worked with these bison his whole life—in his estimate, it took him six months to understand their activity. No, what Sheldon embodied was attentiveness. In his own words, to work with the bison, one has to “learn to pay attention.”

Sheldon’s attentiveness to the bison had redounded to his personal life, which seemed to be on the upswing. Tribal elders had offered Sheldon his job right before he was about to join the fracking rush in eastern Montana and North Dakota. His life today is very different from how it may have been. Although he works long, arduous days—sometimes from 6 am to 12 am—he has a strong cultural and spiritual connection to the work he does with the bison. This is rooted in the attentiveness he has cultivated, an opportunity he may not have found in shale.

For Sheldon, it was attentiveness to the outer world that allowed him to excel and find purpose in his work. However, a few days later, we also found that attentiveness can be found within one’s self as well.

***

At the grassy edge of a lake, all thirteen of us were seated in a circle, completely silent—a rare occurrence for our group. Our eyes were closed. Sounds of the wind softly brushing the conifers and the grass dominated, occasionally perturbed by a “plop” of water from some mysterious creature. One of our fantastic instructors, Danny, was leading us in meditation. Sitting tranquilly for a seemingly timeless period, we focused our attention to our bodies and passing thoughts. We were learning to pay attention to ourselves as Sheldon had learned to be attentive to himself and the bison.

In that silence of mind, I felt serenely enlivened. My mind was lucid, focused on my breath. I was balanced on a slack line between the future and the past—two areas that occupy my mind too often. Fully present, life seemed refulgent with vastness and complexity. Next to that lake, I felt within that I was connected to all that was without. When the meditation ended, there was a warm afterglow. I felt my place within what Mary Oliver has called “the family of things.”

***

For the past week we had been refining our attentiveness. Finally, we were putting it into practice on our observational walk in Northern Waterton. To the untrained eye, our surroundings would have appeared to be a chartreuse blur spotted with tiny dots of Crayola flowers. However, we were being trained in attentiveness and our vision was becoming sharper. At that point we were able to tell the difference between an Engelmann and a White Spruce, two trees distinguished only by the length of their needles and a slight difference in cone shape. At the zenith of our walk, we approached a thirty foot waterfall. While taking in the scene, one of my peers found a patch of wild chives, a felicitous complement to the pad Thai on the supper menu. The joy was halted abruptly when Danny convoked our attention to another plant that could have been mistaken for the twin of the wild chive—the Death Camus.

The Death Camus is a gorgeous plant with a white flower, but is absolutely poisonous in small amounts. According to Daniel Mathews in his book Rocky Mountain Natural History, the Death Camus has caused more deaths in the Rocky Mountain area than any other plant probably will.  It was fortunate that in our elation and heavy appetite, we slowed down and “learned to pay attention” to the difference between these two plants.

Paying attention is not always an easy task. It is the indication of a great naturalist and the distinguishing factor between those who enjoy the present and those who lose themselves in the past and future. A life well lived is a life that is attentive—with all senses—to the present. I will even go as far to say that the quality of attentiveness decides whether we have a good meal and live fully, or whether we live our lives dying, inattentive to the deadly, but beautiful flowers near the waterfall. I am still working on the illimitable task of improving my attentiveness. For now, the least I can do is enjoy supper.

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Natasha Vadas: Don’t Underestimate the Mountain

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There are certain moments in one’s life in which a person finds him or herself faced with a seemingly impossible challenge.  At these times, we are left with the decision to either calmly walk away or to stare into the fire and embrace the difficulty that lies ahead.  In my opinion, the prospect of climbing a mountain is one of these times.  Standing at the base of a mountain I am unfamiliar with, I am simultaneously filled with both anticipation and dread.  These feelings are in response to the recognition of the challenge that I am being faced with, as well as the thought that the view I will be granted at the peak will make every step of the journey well worth the effort.  However, as I stand at the base contemplating the adventure of which I am about to embark, I must remember to never underestimate the mountains.

The Rocky Mountains were here eons before me.  These mountains are home to a vast and intricate ecosystem, carved out through the ages by glaciers and wind, rain and rivers.  Nearly 180 million years old, these mountains broke through the surface of the earth before the dawn of civilization during the Mesozoic Age.  They were home to the most minuscule insects and the largest carnivores.  They breathed life into the conifers and wildflowers, as well as the natives who drank from their sacred springs.  These mountains stood tall and erect as Lewis and Clark paddled through their shadows in 1803, gazing upon the grand peaks and questioning their secrets.  These men did not underestimate the mountains, and neither will I.

As I begin my ascent, I am wary of every step that I take, aware that the rocks I plant my feet on can tumble out from beneath me at the slightest touch.  Upon entering the hidden meadows and deep valleys, I will not underestimate the fierceness of the mountain.  While it may present itself as a calm mosaic, the low roll of thunder and sharp crack of lightning can appear at any moment.  Those calm, refreshing breezes that make the aspens quake can turn to icy sheets of rain, leaving me cold and vulnerable.  And while these turns of events may seem harsh and unforgiving, I must not underestimate the mountain.  For as the cold winds subside and the rain fades into the horizon, I will listen for the sound of the first songbird, thanking the mountain for the gift of shelter.

Climbing higher still, I must remind myself to not underestimate the beauty of the mountains. Slowly gaining elevation, I pass through harsh terrain, up long hills of stone and burnt, fallen lodgepole pine.  Despite the blackened landscape, the mountain shows amazing signs of life as silver lupine and sticky cinquefoil scatter the meadows with their bright colors.  I follow paths lined with beargrass, whose luminescent white bulbs guide me along the trail.  As I continue on my path, I suddenly find myself mesmerized by the sparkling beauty of a pristine alpine lake.  The clear blue water and pebbled shores invite me into the cool depths, giving me sweet relief from the long journey.

Continuing higher and farther into the depths of the mountain, I may feel my energy begin to fade.  I walk along difficult trails, all leading to the same place.  And while the long day and full weight of my pack cause me to doubt my endurance, I must not doubt the path of the mountain.  Because as I finally crest its peak and gaze out upon distant ridges, I will reflect on the long, hard trail that was unbelievably rewarding.  And I will be thankful that I did not underestimate the mountain because it is, after all, a lovely and terrible wilderness, and I had the opportunity to experience every aspect of it.  The experience of climbing a mountain is as difficult as it is rewarding.  The path to the peak can be likened to the journey through life; it is quite often difficult and there are times you will want to turn away and return to the comforts of life, but in the end it is well worth the experience.  As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, it is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.  In the end, the ability to persevere and never underestimate the experience is the key to fully appreciate this crazy thing we call life.

Sadie Koch: From Abstraction to Action on the Colorado Plateau

13384877_10205445711816865_46492133_nAs we near the end of this course I find myself peering back up into Horseshoe Canyon, were we completed our first backpacking trip together. Looking at towering rock walls, meandering Green River, and bright green cottonwoods, of this place I begin to think about how I got here. As a Social Work major, coming on this course directed at increasing environmental literacy was out of left field. It was a complete switch of topics, and I left my studies behind for the semester to learn a whole new set of skills. But why did I make this choice?

I have always been passionate about being in the outdoors whether I am backpacking, climbing, or having a picnic. As someone who spends a lot of time in the outdoors, I have always been surrounded by people who are passionate about protecting the Earth from its current threats of climate change and environmental degradation. These people feel a passionate emotion that leads them to change their own lives to protect their environment and often to speak out against the ways it is being damaged.  I always felt some type of abstract emotions over the possible loss of the places that I loved the most, but it was never as intense or as driving as I wanted it to be. I think that I came on this WRFI course because I hoped that I would learn to feel something deeper about the places I love; something that would push me to be a more involved participant of environmental protection.  Through the physical and emotional journey of this course, I think that I accomplished just this.

Looking back into Horseshoe Canyon after eight weeks exploring the Colorado Plateau, I remembered my first time in this canyon.  It was the start of this adventure and the dramatic cliff walls, sandy washes, and chips of chert were all so new to me.  Seeing the beauty of this landscape and feeling its mystery connected me to this canyon.  And then we saw the pictographs.  The eerie figures painted by people who existed in this canyon thousands of years before me made me feel a connection to something much greater than just me and the canyon.  All such poetic feelings, I know, but the sense of wonder I got from this strange new place was overwhelming.  As humans it is very hard to value and care about things that we are not personally connected to.  Having this personal connection to a landscape built my ability to experience other emotions surrounding the land more fully because I cared deeply about this landscape.

After Horseshoe we hiked, scrambled, and splashed our way through Dirty Devil Canyon.  This canyon felt even more dramatic than the first because of the murky river that ran through the canyon walls, carrying their sediment and reflecting the landscape around it.  However, we also walked across old roads once used for uranium mining in the canyon.  We also learned about the potential for tar sands extraction in the area, one of the most environmentally damaging ways to extract fossil fuels, and the lack of protection against these practices.  I imagined the pollution of the solitude, silence, and ecology of the landscape and I felt a pang of sadness, loss, and regret while imagining the slow destruction of this canyon.  I knew that I could picture the destruction so clearly in my head because it had happened to so many other wilderness areas, and would be the loss of a place that we could not afford to say goodbye to yet.

The sadness I felt quickly dissolved into anger, especially after our time in the reservations of Navajo and Hopi.  We saw the environmental destruction of their sacred lands and that their inequality of voice left them relatively powerless in the face of environmental exploitation that was often supported by the government.  An example of this that we saw was the exploitation of the water from the Navajo Aquifer from the Black Mesa Coal mine.  Since the mine’s creation, it has decreased water levels in the aquifer by around 50%, overusing the primary source of drinking water on the reservations (LaDuke 380). We saw this in our Hopi hostess’s cistern which she used to be able to swim in. Because of the decrease in water in the aquifer that feeds her cistern, the flow has been reduced to less than a trickle.  Many Hopi elders have spoken out against the mine’s practices, but their voices have been ignored and the water use as it has been was allowed to continue.  I saw the environmental injustices involved with the fight against environmental degradation, where high emitters make the decisions of the rates at which this degradation will happen, while those most highly affected are not given a fair voice to speak out about these practices.

The inequality of this system made me angry in a personal way.  This I could connect with Social Work, and it reminded me of why I chose this path in the beginning.  Feeling this personal anger is important because it drives people to speak out against the ways that things have been happening and initiate change.  Jack Turner talks about how a personal anger, “presumes how things ought to be and aren’t, presumes caring” (Turner 22).  Although dwelling on this anger can often be unhealthy, it is important because it is the catalyst for change, and it is obvious that we need to change how we live if we want to protect the Earth.

However, for me, anger is not enough.  I think that in order for action to occur, we need hope.  Many people, when asked why they became involved with protest, talk about an anger rooted in a sense that their actions could make a difference, and hope for the future.  An idea that their anger was not ignored.

In Dark Canyon we entered our first Wilderness, designated by Congress.  Although this designation did not mean a lot for our trip it did signify a legal action taken to protect a beautiful area.  Wilderness designation is permanent so the longevity of this canyon was guaranteed by the wooden sign at the trailhead.  To me, this signified a call to action that was answered on a national level to fight for the preservation of our remaining wild places.  While there is a lot of work to be done, and a lot more places to protect, the process has begun, which gives me hope.

“Effective protests are grounded in an alternative vision” (Turner 23).  What Turner is describing is a need for a protest to have something to fight for, not just against.  The environmental movement has often had that problem, where everyone is working towards creating a better future but the idea of how to do this in not consistent within the movement.  In Labyrinth Canyon we learned about a variety of ways to act in the face of environmental degradation that are being explored.  One way that is being considered in the idea of Bioregionalism, where the connection of inhabitants to their land is encouraged to promote the feeling of responsibility to protect your land.  If we were more connected to our land it is presumed that we would be more involved in the governance of this land and learn to use it more sustainably.  I think that the idea of this is very interesting and seems like it would be effective, and as we paddled through the Green River I thought about ways that I could implement this in my own life.   Learning about the ways to create change in our lives made me think of a personalized path forward and validated the work we did on the course.

This emotional exploration from connection to sadness to anger to hope to action left me feeling like I could and needed to take this knowledge and use it.  It may not be directly involved with my career path but I think that it has taught me how to be the more knowledgeable, passionate environmental steward that I have always tried to emulate.  The personal connection both to this place and the lessons I learned of how to protect them will hopefully remain with me as I move forward.

Works Cited

LaDuke, W.  (2005).  Salt, Water, Blood and Coal: Mining in the Southwest.  In Recovering the Sacred: The Power In Naming and Claiming.  Cambridge, MA: South End Press.   

Turner, J.  (1996).  The Abstract Wild: A Rant.  Pp.  19-37 in The Abstract Wild.  Albuquerque: University                     of Arizona Press.

Hannah Joki: Natural history on the Rocky Mountain Front

Hannah_JokiAs my first backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness is coming to a close, I am humbled. I am humbled by the fear of bears outside my tent every night; I am humbled by the fear of injury in a secluded place; I am humbled by the scenery that belittles me; I am humbled by the nine hour days I spend walking through the woods; I am humbled. Not only has this trip tested my physical endurance, but also tested my place on this Earth.

I am just a tiny spec in a large ecosystem that can’t be controlled. Society has tried to become apart of this wild and raw ecosystem that we only force ourselves into. As we walk on the trails, we are faced with the realization that we have no control out here. This may be public land but we do not own it, the millions of species do. Being a Montanan also helps me understand the importance of living with the environment and understanding how important becoming a naturalist is.

In one of the readings, Thomas Fleischner talks about the eight characteristics of becoming a naturalist. The eight qualities are: attentiveness, receptivity, expression, vision, accuracy, gratitude, humility, and affirmation. These are the characteristics that keep us levelheaded and help co-exist with nature, not control it. More then the others, I relate to attentiveness, gratitude and humility.

I have become active in my attentiveness to the trail and the clover hoofs that shape the trail before me. The occasional bear track always grabs my attention, the large pad with five toes and long claws indicate the grizzlies nearby. My hand is only a fraction of the size, making me feel small and helpless.

I stood on the top of Sheepshed Mountain, realizing the small role I play on this planet. I felt a mass flood of humility. The snow capped mountains just miles away and the Great Plains stretching to the East. The sheer size of every land form brought tears to my eyes; the amount of respect gained for the land was unexplainable. “Wilderness is the raw material out of which has hammered the artifact called civilization” (Leopold, 1949). As I stood on the mountain I realized society has embedded itself into this raw, untouched, landscapes around me. Civilization is the tool people used to gain control over the land, to feel the ownership we will never truly have.

It seems that to be a naturalist is to understand the environment to a level greater than most people can imagine. Nature is the base of civilization and only a few people have taken the time to experience nature raw.

I’ve gained gratitude through my time backpacking. I am grateful for the fear of bears that keeps me grounded and for the land I may never see again. I am glad the fear of bears keeps me smart and vigilant, even though we have yet to encounter one. My heart flutters every time I round a corner, continuously reminding me of my place in this world. I am seeping with gratitude for I, and only a few others, have walked where I’ve walked. And once I walk out I may never walk back in, but my gratitude of this experience is endless.

Aldo Leopold states how, “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” This observation is of a true naturalist, realizing the land is wise and the animals that roam it are raw and important to the mysterious complex. So many people will never know what its like to stand in the middle of wilderness and see nothing but mountains. They will never learn to appreciate the lifetimes the mountains have seen, the fires it has burned under, the deaths it has taken, the lives it has given.

As we walk our seven miles out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I will recognize the grizzly hairs on the trees as I pass, know the names of many plants in the area, and follow the path of many animals before me. The trail connects me to nature as the elk, deer, moose, bear and I walk step over step, me becoming connected to them. As my journey continues I hope to be humbled even more, becoming a true naturalist in my generation.

Claire Longcope: To Know a Place

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What a way to get to know a place! As we grilled local bison burgers last night, I was telling Melissa, one of our generous hosts in Choteau, about our trip. She said she bets we are getting to know the state of Montana better than a lot of Montanans do. We would probably need some more time here to really get to know the culture of different Montanan towns (likely requiring some off-course time in the bars). However, it seems like we’ve gotten a pretty full perspective on the state’s energy systems.

The education we’ve gotten on the topic of energy was made possible by the multi-faceted educational approach that WRFI has set out for us. In our 472 pages reader that we each drag across the state, we read opinion articles, energy reports, novel excerpts, and even journalistic articles by our own instructor, Matt Frank. We give Matt a hard time for including 75+ pages of his writing that we’re assigned to read, but I think that having our course leaders be so engaged in the issues we’re learning about is one of the coolest part of this course. This trip in some ways has felt like we’re collecting a big set of data and research for a journal article.

I’ve been amazed by the effectiveness of the structure of this course. The most influential part for me so far has been meeting with people with all sorts of perspectives on these issues. We had a discussion with a self-proclaimed environmentalist who is passionately “pro-coal” due to her devotion to her coal-dependent small town of Roundup. We were treated to breakfast by Alan Olson, the executive director of Montana Petroleum Association, at Jorgenson’s- the place where (rumor has it) the big-wigs meet in the bar to make under-the-radar plans for new legislation. We sat in a snazzy meeting room in the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and discussed their recently released “Blueprint for Montana’s Energy Future” and the possible return of the Clean Power Plan. Later that afternoon, we heard from Anne Hedges of Montana Environmental Information Center about their lawsuit filed against the DEQ. I don’t know of a time other than on a WRFI course that I’d have the opportunity to meet with such a variety of influential figures in the industry we are studying. I’ll keep this in mind in future research projects of my own as an important way to gather multiple people’s perspectives. Despite the potentially differing political or ethical views between the people in our meetings, every discussion has been pleasant and informative.

Anyway, we’re getting to know Montana energy pretty well. Actually, it’s to a point where my knowledge of what’s going on in the energy industry in Maine — the state I call home — is feeling pretty lame. While I feel a deep connection to the place itself due to time spent exploring certain areas of coastline and weaving through the Eastern Hemlocks and Balsam Firs  in Maine’s forests, maybe it’s time to take a bike tour across the whole state and see what I’m missing out on. For example, I recently learned that 26% of Maine’s electricity generation comes from biomass- I’d like to find out more about the wood products that are being burned. What part of trees is most often burned? Are they doing anything to offset the damage done by cutting down trees- such as planting new ones? By the time these new trees sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, will it be too late? These are just a few of the questions I have about Maine’s renewable energy, and I’d like to look into the answers by chatting with people across the state. After Cycle the Rockies, maybe I’ll have the confidence to take Shwayze (my beloved Trek 520 touring bike) for another spin in a whole new part of the country.

Olivia Walcott: The Answer’s in Empathy

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“Empathy trumps psychology every time”

– quote written on Steve Charter’s kitchen whiteboard by his late wife.

It is especially easy to feel defeated as an environmentalist. We’re frantic for a short and sweet answer to the complex and urgent matter of climate change. At times, it feels as though the cards are already stacked against us, that there is not any world left to save. When entrenched in the study of all the different ways our environment is speeding towards disaster, I don’t know what fight to fight. But I do want to fight for something. I want to fight for a clean earth and a healthy environment, but can I manage that and not destroy the lives of the good employees at Signal Peak Coal Mine? How can I ensure that no more environmental injustice is done to those in poverty? How can I do that and maintain empathy for my fellow humans and not vilify others? I believe that is what makes the quote in Steve Charter’s kitchen so striking. I understand the greenhouse effect, rate of consumption of our natural resources and the data behind our changing climate, but all of this scientific understanding is pointless unless it’s put to use. Empathy for our fellow people will be the greatest tool we have in the environmental movement.

The complexity of the environmental movement is absolutely overwhelming, but at the same time I suppose that is what makes it empowering. The more I learn, the more questions I end up asking, a dichotomy that leads to nothing but a deeper understanding of the problem at hand.

The issue I find the most intriguing (and frustrating) is fracking. The development of horizontal fracking has driven the price of natural gas so low that it’s outcompeting coal. In some ways, the low price of natural gas can take credit for the closing of coal-fired power plants and blocked permits for new coal mines. Natural gas could act as our “blue bridge” into the future of renewable and clean energy. Currently, there is not the battery capacity to have a grid completely powered by solar and wind energy. These renewables fluctuate with the weather so the energy pushed onto the grid is uneven. The argument made for natural gas is that we will use it now, and then phase it out as we transition into the renewable future. However, this argument doesn’t account for the lack of regulations on fracking that can lead to destroyed aquifers, acres of farmland poisoned by saline water spills, and the correlation between fracking and seismic activity.

I find it difficult to support fracking when it’s causing more environmental damage, even though that’s what it’s supposed to be saving us from. I can’t imagine that pumping chemicals deep underground would ever have a net benefit to our earth. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel filled with hydrocarbons that are more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Additionally, we’re witnessing first hand with coal how difficult it is to “phase out” an entire industry so maybe the same fight is waiting down the road with natural gas.

When weighing the costs and benefits to the issue of fracking, a few speakers from our course come to mind. I think of Nicole Borner of Roundup, Montana, a county commissioner who supports the coal industry in her area. When we explained the Cycle the Rockies course to her she eagerly asked if we would be trying to come up with a solution. Steve Charter was actually the person that recommended that we speak with Nicole. She had published an op-ed (found here) about the damage it would do to her community if the Signal Peak Coal Mine shut down. Nicole is a self-proclaimed environmentalist but supports coal due to the large portion of tax revenue it brings to her stagnant community. Steve had read her op-ed and approached her to discuss the issue as his ranch is at risk of being undermined by the coal mine. In the end, the two were able to have a civil conversation on the topic despite the large difference of opinion.

When we had breakfast with Elizabeth Wood and her husband Wilbur the day after meeting with Nicole, Elizabeth pointedly asked how we would go about creating the change the environment so desperately needed. This, along with Nicole’s search for a solution, are both huge questions that I don’t feel qualified to give a concrete answer. But I can work at an answer. I suppose that it would circle back to the quote on the whiteboard written more than five years ago: “Empathy trumps psychology every time.” Every time people with differing views are able to come to the table and share what our changing environment will mean to them, we get a little bit closer to a solution. In the future, I believe that caring for our earth and fellow people will create the progress that we all continue to search for.

Seth Yoder: Is natural gas the key to renewable energy? Or will it make the transition tougher?

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The last time I sat down at a computer was about 400 miles ago and a lot has happened since then. We cycled north to the small town of Roundup and took Route 12 west across central Montana, eventually on our way to Helena where we spent a few nights. After Helena we headed north to the Holter Dam, an organic farm in Fort Shaw, and a 4th of July I’ll never forget in Choteau. The Rocky Mountain Front has given us rolling hills that have challenged us as much as the wind did on the plains. I’m ready to eat lunches that consist of more than flour tortillas, cheese, and tuna! Though I have eaten a lot healthier on this trip, except for after 50-mile days when I eat six spoonfuls of Nutella. We have eaten fairly well for a month long camping trip if you ask me.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen everything from the high intensity machinery of the Signal Peak coal mine, to the rows and rows of wind turbines at the Judith Gap wind farm, to agencies and nonprofits in Helena working on energy issues. It’s incredibly complex, this transition afoot toward renewable energy sources.

Key to that transition is natural gas. It’s viewed by many as a “bridge” fuel. And, as we learned while visiting NorthWestern Energy, it’s used to flatten out, so to speak, the inherent volatility of wind energy and, increasingly, solar.

The technology of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) combined with horizontal drilling has made natural gas cheaper than coal, which is a primary reason behind the coal industry’s struggles, as we saw at Signal Peak, where dozens of workers were recently laid off. Natural gas has its advantages, but it also poses risks.

Burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, so it can help us reach targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the country. But there are a whole bunch of negative impacts that come along with it. With casing malfunctions of wells, drinking water can be affected in shallower wells. We read about a study by Stanford University scientists that found shallow fracking wells had a clear impact on underground drinking water sources. Fracking also leads to methane pollution. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Lastly, in a University of Texas study researchers linked injection of the wastewater back into the wells with earthquakes. Granted, this isn’t fracking itself but it is a practice that is very common with the overall production of natural gas and oil.

Will our increased dependence on natural gas prove to be a bridge, or will we remain hooked? We learned at Judith Gap that storage—batteries like Tesla’s—are being used to help wind farms deliver more consistent energy. If storage technology continues to advance, perhaps natural gas won’t be needed as much when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

As the bike tour moves west, the scenery is getting more and more beautiful but that means the hills are getting that much bigger. As I said before, it’s been challenging, but well worth the longer days. I’m excited to get up to Glacier National Park and experience some jaw dropping scenery and hopefully get to some cooler temperatures as we learn more about climate change.