As the first 20 miles of the winding, steadily inclined road came to an end, I got off my loaded bike feeling stiff, sunburnt, and tired. We had reached the Signal Peak Coal Mine, and I had assumed that I’d have a hard time relating to or empathizing with people who live such different lives and have such different values from me. However, what I have found is that I’ve felt continuously amazed not only by the love that people feel for this state, but also by the tenacity, passion, and persistence with which rural Eastern Montanans fight for what they believe is right.
It was clear from the way she spoke about her land that Alexis Bonogofsky’s identity was deeply intertwined with her landscape. She has a big, kind smile and strong blue eyes, and lives on a ranch just outside of Billings, Montana. When one morning she woke up to the usually clear waters of the Yellowstone river that meander through her property oozing with thick black oil from the Exxon oil pipe that burst, the memory was enough to bring tears to her eyes even after many years had passed. Alexis explained that the days after the oil spill were the most stressful time of her life. The anxiety that came from Exxon’s harmful cleanup efforts, and the health problems that came from inhaling the toxic fumes that enveloped her land, made for a difficult few years as she and her land worked to recover. Since then she has been more motivated than ever in her efforts towards environmentalism and community organization around climate action.
Steve Charter, a kind, scruffy rancher who wears a sweat stained cowboy hat owns his summer range north of Shepard, MT, near the Signal Peak Coal mine. The land has been in his family through several generations, and the tall golden grasses and the rich fertile soil has become more important than just for the livelihood of his cattle. He explains that he has a personal relationship with the land. This relationship is maintained as the care and effort he puts into the earth is reciprocated when the land provides him with healthy growth and abundance. When the Signal Peak Coal Mine threatened the stability of the landscape and his aquifers, his family began a resistance that has persisted for 40 years. Both Alexis and Steve embody what it means to be connected to a landscape. The distinction between their land and their identity is blurred as the hours of work and reward accumulate. Both Alexis and Steve have dedicated too much of their lives toward their environmental effort for their relationship with their land to be anything short of an infatuation.
As I’ve been listening to stories throughout the last couple of weeks, I realized that looking past the immediacy of the things that impact people directly can be very difficult. The topics of concern differed at Signal Peak Coal Mine and in its neighboring town, Roundup, MT. City Councilwoman, Nicole Bonner, remembers the poor quality of the drinking water in Roundup as far back as when she first moved in as a young girl. Since then, abandoned coal mines that lacked the finances for any clean-up efforts have added rust and a burnt red tint to the drinking water. When the Signal Peak Coal Mine began mining, Nicole recalls the economic boost that it provided for the town of Roundup and its population which teeters around 1,000 people. It helped pay for property taxes, it helped build a new school, and it provided good paying local jobs when they were scarce. Seven years ago, the flood of the Musselshell River that runs through town left it behind in a state of devastation. The flood roared through the small town’s already ancient, fragile, and in some places rotting and collapsing infrastructure, and left it beaten and battered. The people of Roundup remember the financial generosity of the Coal Mine during the difficult days of reconstruction and repair. Roundup views the economic help from the mine as providing immediate and valuable services to a town that had little chance of gaining momentum on its own. When the problems at hand are as fundamental as healthy drinking water, or money to help rebuild the homes swept away by a flood, Nicole explained that climate change tended to take the back burner, while the coal miners’ contributions provided relief that the town members remember and greatly value.
Within the culture of the coal mine, the close-knit community felt a lot of pride for their work. Signal Peak is the only underground coal mine left in Montana, and no other export or generating scale mines have ever existed in Montana. The labor intensive work and the 12 hour shifts are stressful and risky. Yet the time spent together and the comradery throughout the long days have created a family like atmosphere in the workplace. Our tour guides, Byron from Colstrip, MT, and Sam from Roundup, MT, both emphasized the importance of trust and the community between coworkers on the job. Byron said that his favorite part about his job is the people he works with. He also said that when Donald Trump (who promised to end the war on coal that had been threatening the coal miner’s good paying jobs) was elected, that “morale around here really went up.” Even though he admitted that Trump can’t change the market, and that he hasn’t done anything that will help them, the relief and the appeal to the group that had been feeling overlooked went a long way. It was clear that the narrative throughout the workplace was one of “global citizenship.” The guilt that I had imagined some of them might be feeling about the emissions that result from their work was instead replaced with pride for their contributions in helping power and provide energy for people around the globe.
Feeling connected is an important aspect of human fulfillment, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. At times it is a connection to a landscape that fuels the fight for environmentalism like with Alexis and Steve. Other times it is a community that one grows up in that is dependable and always feels like home despite its hardships and setbacks. And sometimes is the job that provides one with the satisfaction of knowing their contribution to helping provide electricity, and with it the feeling of comfort and security that connects one with the rest of the world. Even though I share different values and opinions with many of these people, I like knowing that they are there. I found comfort in knowing that there are many different ways to live this life. Instead of making me feel detached, engaging with so many different lifestyles and opinions has made me feel more connected to my state.