The Nature of Human/Land Relations by Gavin Ratliff

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Filling the still air with a cry eerily human, a band of coyotes begin the night’s hunting party—in search of a weak deer, rodent, or even some insects if business is slow. Their whiny howl and yips stretch through the trees and gullies, reminding us of shared experience and camaraderie—both within a species and an ecosystem. I have to wonder how long they’ve felt our presence on the north side of Half Moon Pass: a few hours? A day?

When did a dog’s howl cease to put goose bumps on our arms and legs? When did we become so far removed from the wild of nature that someone thought to argue we weren’t even a part of the natural world? Nine days in the Big Snowy Mountains presented us with the question: are we a part of or separate from Nature?

In their essay, Social Construction of Nature, Robbins, Hintz and Moore define nature as: everything that exists that is not a product of human activity. This compliments the idea of Wilderness—a designated, fenced off area outside of human development; to create preserved landscapes in the heart of the mountains solidifies the feeling that human impact of any kind is unnatural. As William Cronon explains in ‘The Trouble With Wilderness’, wilderness was once a description of places beyond human domain. Wild landscapes were barren, desolate, unknown and frightening. Our shift in wild sentiment likely began when more and more people moved off the land into cities—becoming less dependent on the natural world day to day, and thus being able to romanticize it from a dry, warm house.

Certain rhetoric around nature enforces this disconnect. Many describe mountains or rivers as sacred—however inflated that term has become. Sacred, originating from the Latin term sacrare, means to ‘make holy’ or to ‘set apart.’ Within the word is an instruction to set what we hold as sacred apart from our lives. Although many don’t consciously make this connection to the word, the attitude that arises from the hidden meaning hurts our ability to feel connected to other species and landscapes.

The counter to this sentiment becomes obvious when I spend a night in the mountains, or face a cold gust of wind on the prairie. Trekking over Half Moon Pass in the Big Snowy Mountains of central Montana, we walked cow and game trails, often relying on their footprints for the path of least resistance up a mountain. Letting out a yell at the top of the pass, like that of a curious coyote, we made ourselves known and affected the behavior and movement of every species on that side of the mountain.

The thirteen of us on Montana Afoot and Afloat don’t live in the Big Snowies. To us, this range is separate from our daily lives. But active populations do thrive in the foothills, relying on these hills for livestock grazing, outfitting guests, or hunting. The cowboys and hunters we passed on the trail live in our picturesque desktop screen-savers, and they are as affected by the natural system as any animal.

And for a week, we did depend on the natural system—its weather patterns, terrain changes, and water sources. If there is any argument to be made emphasizing our separation from nature, there needs to be an edit: Many people in Urban America have developed further away from the natural world, in an all too separate universe. But they are an exception, in my mind, to the rule that we are a part of the natural world, and human activity does exist in the wildest of places.

It’s my feeling that not acknowledging our place in nature can lead to a litany of dangers for mankind. Most importantly, this mindset leads to a lack of innate responsibility for nature. Growing up apart from the dirt, trees, and rivers encourages a vision of two worlds—one of humans and one of non-concrete, wildernesses; if it’s not a landscape or plot of land you grew up with and have a livelihood attached to, it becomes difficult to feel the commonality between yourself and the coyotes.

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Clark Macomber: How the O’Halloran’s are Changing the Game

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Our visit to the O’Halloran’s organic farm in central Montana left me inspired and looking to implement much of their practices into my life. The O’Halloran’s have totally changed the way we should produce our food and if their ideals could be brought to the majority, they would have profound impacts on our natural resources and community development. What the O’Halloran’s have done is extend their respect to the land, the animals, the people and the community around them. The O’Halloran have brought a set of land ethics back into an industry that has been lacking for a long time now.

The way the O’Halloran’s view their use of the land is one I had never seen before. They talk about “mining the land” when growing crops. The O’Halloran’s have used ideals we have also read about in the book Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle, describing the use of legumes on Montana farms to put nitrogen back into the soil and organically manage soil quality without mass amounts of inorganic fertilizer. They are incredibly hesitant to till the land due to the irreversible impact it would have on soil carbon and structure. Their ethical treatment of the land also extends to grazing in the sense that they never overgraze the land and always leave a little extra forage for wildlife.

The O’Halloran’s cows take the idea of ‘happy cows’ to a whole new level. Their cows have beautiful land to roam and graze between the bends of the winding Judith River. They have yet to brand their cattle because they see them as equal and cannot bring themselves to scar the skin of an equal. What the O’Halloran’s have done on their farm is admirable, and what they have done in the community can make and incredible change.

The O’Halloran’s have created a new business to stimulate the economy that supports their employees in ways that allow them to live in a town like Lewistown. With the decline of rural America, the O’Halloran’s revitalize the small town by supplying jobs with living wages and childcare for their workers. By treating their employees so well, it allows people to stay in Lewistown. Well-paying jobs for young people are lacking and having more jobs and people like the O’Halloran’s is what we need to revitalize rural America.

Through the O’Halloran’s work they have addressed many of the environmental issues that we face today. Their work is inspiring and I hope that their way of life can be passed onto others and can become the common trend across the country. They certainty left a lasting impact on me. Now I just wish to help spare the word!

Cattle Culture: a feedlot story by Kiki Kane-Owens

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Stuffed with 13 stinky backpackers, our beloved WRFI van, Dolly pulled up to Cody Yeager’s feedlot in Choteau, Montana. Surrounded by gray skies and prairie land on either side of the road, I tumbled out of the van onto an industrial farm-scape. My feet sank into a brown sludge of mud, cow poop and grain as the prairie wind blew and inundated my nostrils with the putrid smell of cow waste.

I began running through the negative assumptions I had made about feedlots, the people who owned them and “factory farming.” I expected to be confronted with a red-faced nationalist wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, a man consumed with making money and advocating for the importance of big business—set on making it even at the expense of the people, landscape, and animals around him.

To the contrary, I was greeted by the good-hearted Cody, a sweet middle-aged man with rough hands, a warm smile and a deep love for animals and people alike—bringing them together with a big ‘ol pile of American raised beef. I encountered cows who were treated humanely, and kept healthy. A business run by a man with an exceptional commitment to community and sustaining community-run business.

After an introduction, we got a tour of the feedlot—a medium sized lot, averaging about 8,000 head of cattle at any given time–that Cody took over about 15 years ago. Cody’s father, originally a rancher, built the feedlot in the late 1970’s in response to an increasing demand for high quantities of beef coupled with the reduction of beef prices that made ranching economically unfeasible for many families in the West. Pressured by a market dictated by efficiency, Cody and his family, were forced to grow or die; and so they grew.

The feedlot buys calves and young cows from grass-fed ranches within the area and generally aims to add between 700 and 1000 pounds to the animal before sending it off to slaughter.  Cody made it clear that a moral tenant of his business was to minimize waste and keep production input as local as possible by sourcing animal feed from local businesses. Each cow is fed a mix of fattening grains, primarily sourced from the agricultural byproducts of other surrounding businesses (such as barley from local breweries). Faced with the pressures of competing with supersized beef production corporations minimizing profit margins and maximizing infrastructure costs, Cody has remained committed to working with his local agricultural community—an effort that has provided both a financial benefit for him and a boost to the Choteau agricultural economy.

To say all of this, of course, is not to make any statement about feedlots as a whole, or to excuse moral or environmental injustices that are often associated with them (and, in many cases, rightly so), but rather to point out that there is a network of good people behind every sweeping assumption made about environmentally questionable practices. It is to point out that any environmental issue—especially those in which people’s economic welfare is involved–is much more nuanced than “feedlots are bad.”  It is an attempt to give a small voice to those often villainized.

While it is easy to criticize every environmentally unfriendly business, especially industrial agriculture, I think it is of paramount importance in solving any issue to understand that the people involved in these systems are doing what they do because they need to financially survive. It is not that they lack a moral compass and disregard environmental or ethical standards, it is that they need to make a living and support their family.

It brings forth the idea that in establishing a land ethic and formulating opinions about human-powered ecological destruction, one must remember to humanize the people behind the larger systems. It becomes important to remember that resistance to moving towards environmentally friendly practices, especially in rural environments, is rarely founded in mal intent, but is rather founded in people’s effort to maintain economic stability. Cody, for example, pointed out that ranchers and feedlot owners alike are often very weary of environmental degradation because they rely on it for their livelihood. And so, the next question is: how do we balance ecological well-being with human welfare when the two are often at odds?

Gavin Ratliff: Restoring the West in Who’s Image?

Gavin Blog 1From Missoula to the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve read and met with Montanans about what’s valued in an inclusive, working landscape. As our readings and guest speakers have so far indicated, defining the ‘Original West’ is tricky, if not counter-productive. But a question lingers in many of our class discussions and peeks its head around bison herds, burnt conifers, and small western general stores: to continue enjoying and relying on this powerful landscape, what needs to change?

We tend to picture the American West as untouched wilderness before European settlement: fenceless ground with a fully sustainable ecosystem. Our time in the Scapegoat Wilderness gave us a similar impression: the ‘Wilderness’ sign abruptly turned cow prints to deer, and a rustling bush into potential danger. Yet before white settlement, there were millions of people thriving throughout the plains and mountains, draining wetlands and damming rivers. Wilderness areas today are maybe even more ‘wild’ than the land was on the frontier! Do we return the west to a pre-human, pre-European, or pre-vacationer landscape? All three have altered the terrain and culture of Montana to some degree.

The ideal western landscape has bits and pieces from each group who inhabit this place—some benefitting Native Americans, some ranchers, some developers and recreationalists. Despite some isolated efforts to work together on a collaborative landscape, we’ve seen little physical evidence so far on this field course. As we read William Cronon and Aldo Leopold, and meet with a fascinating variety of Westerners, I’ve begun to play with the idea of what the West could look like if interests remain individual; how would fragmented regions perform, splitting these beloved mountains into territories of agriculture, recreation, preserved wilderness?  Traveling through reservations, national parks, and ranch lands we’ve seen these groups at home in their west. But they could each easily belong to different countries the way they avoid coexistence.

Still, these thoughts imply an anthropocentric landscape. Where do the plants and animals come in? Do these taciturn species have no say in the future of the landscape?

Our two weeks on the Rocky Mountain Front and my college years in Colorado, the Tetons, and Bozeman have proven to me that West is as much a mindset as it is a place. The west, in European history, has been a cultural push back against outside authority—stemming from our roots in Manifest Destiny to a country voting red last November. Like the west, the rebels who first journeyed into unknown territory have been romanticized and admired in society. Are environmentalists—and those in favor of restoration—the next wave of western rebellion, challenging the way we live with the land?

For me personally, restoration to an imagined wild past holds the wrong implication. While our journey through Montana so far has certainly shown some of our misuse of the land, to discount the place humans have in this landscape seems detrimental. To remove species and developments critical to a working land’s future would be a step backwards in Western progress. Instead, why not work with our current ecosystem striving for a more unifying and holistic approach to conservation?

Maizie Smith: Why Environmentalists Should be more like Journalists

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WRFI students talk with Hal Herring in Augusta. Photo Credit: Holly Herring 

In this day and age people are increasingly confined to their echo chambers of information. Whether it be the news sources we consume, the people we discuss issues with, or our previous assumptions, we are all suffering from some amount of confirmation bias. Meaning, we seek out information that confirms what we already know or believe and find ways to poke holes in any argument that differs from our framework. While avoiding these biases are important when looking at variety of issues, it is critical to bring this approach when engaging with complex environmental issues that involve a wide variety of stakeholders. Environmental issues are increasingly complicated with many stakeholders involved. These complex issues require creativity and collaboration by many different people to produce effective outcomes. So, as bias crowds out critical and collaborative thinking about environmental issues, both sides of the political aisle are failing to create meaningful change for their communities and ecosystems.

This is why I, as an environmental studies student in a liberal college town, look up to and seek out journalists like Hal Herring. Hal lives in Augusta, Montana, a town on the Rocky Mountain Front with just over 300 residents. He has been a conservation journalist since his mid-thirties. He writes for publications with a more pro-conservation readership like High Country News, as well as publications like Field and Stream, where he is a contributing editor, that have a less environmentally minded readership. Hal has the ability to look at conservation issues with nuance and depth. He waits to form an opinion on issues until he has acquired the facts and talked with a multitude of stakeholders. He prefers to do research on the ground, meeting with and talking to as many people as possible who are involved in these issues in varying degrees.

When I met Hal this fall he was as lively and insightful as ever. His southern accent and big smile couldn’t outshine his wit and attention to detail when discussing conservation in Montana. We talked about Forest Service budgets and conservation projects, as well as the diverse audiences he writes for. He is one of those rare people that enjoys reading the comments on his articles. He noted when writing about conservation for Field and Stream, in the comments he gets called “just about anything but a straight white male.” Beyond the fiery comments, Hal embraces the feedback from online readers and community members he talks with.

He talks with the people who are most intimately connected with the land, the people who rely on these places for financial and spiritual wellbeing. The people who have lived in these places for centuries and have acquired information, weighed all the pros and cons of an issue, and who are often fighting to be heard. Hal gives a voice to rural people and conservation issues all over the country, and he isn’t catering to anyone but a good story while he shines a truthful light on communities and wildlands. He takes pride in advocating for conservation to an often hard-nosed conservative Field and Stream audience, as well as having realistic, balanced, and place-based assessments when writing to a farther left audience. Hal’s best ally when writing to such varied audiences is telling a good story that is focused on relevant facts and experiences.

Beyond his talent to tell important stories, Hal is a great teacher in his own way. He meets with groups and talks about conservation issues in the west. For me, Hal reminded me that I should make no assumptions before I approach a new environmental issue. They are all unique. I am no journalist, but I am trying to help promote responsible land use, while also trying to meet people where they are at in terms of needing a way of life. I also want to respect and account for human and nonhuman historical knowledge intertwined in any environmental issue. To help guide myself and others in acquiring knowledge, I have a few guiding principles inspired partly by writers like Hal.

  • Avoid echo chambers and confirmation bias
  • Listen to multiple stake holders, seek out their opinions
  • Know that one universal ethical framework cannot be applied to every diverse landscape and environmental issue you encounter

Hal is not trying to get people to act in any way, instead his “passions as a writer and storyteller lie where they always have – in exploring humankind’s evolving relationship to the natural world, and all the failures, successes and deep tensions inherent in that relationship” (Herring). Like Hal, seek information that is as exciting as these landscapes we all want our children to see. Look at multiple sides of an issue before you make judgement, find journalists and publications that incorporate a variety of views, orient yourself to a landscape ecologically and historically, and always seek out a good story.

Rachel Bowanko: Common Ground

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

When I was young I lived over the hill from a bustling creek. On days when the sun was shining, I would run downstairs and put on big black rain boots, ten sizes too big, grab a few black garbage bags, and race over the hill to that creek that I loved so dearly. The trees blew in, the wind and birds chirping above welcomed me back. I would find a large stick for balance and walk along the creek among the rocks, picking up trash along the way. Sometimes my mom would join, and other days I would make my friends come with me, pretending that we were grown-ups and that it was our job to clean the creek.

I spent a majority of my time by this creek, watching the fish, frogs, and birds among the trees, rocks, and mosses. I watched the seasons change around me and noticed patterns in nature such as the way the current flows and where the frogs find their homes at the end of the day. When I had a long day, I would walk down to the creek to think. Sitting on the rocks I could hear the wind through the trees somehow answering all my questions. The time I spent outside growing up taught me about the power of nature and my place within the world around me. It helped instill a desire and need to protect this world around me. Thinking back to the time I spent by this creek, I recognize just how instrumental it was in shaping who I am today. This creek taught me what it means to find your place within the world around you, and it taught me how to live among nature in a respectful and kind manner. With each change for the season, I became more grounded in my spot by the creek and my love for it grew deeper. From this love stemmed an obligation to protect it.

We spent one week in mid-October floating the Tongue River, and as we floated I remembered the time I spent near the creek by my house. Compared to the creek near my house, the Tongue River is a much more complex ecosystem with a larger community connected to it. The creek near my house supported fish and frogs, several insects, some mosses and vines, and some deciduous trees growing nearby. The Tongue River out here supports fish, insects, Cottonwoods and wildlife such as deer and coyotes. While the creek in my yard crossed through one habitat, the Tongue River spans riparian habitats, Ponderosa Pine forests, native grasslands, and rocky cliff banks lined with red strips from burned coal. The creek near my house was a place for fun and play for the neighborhood kids; out here the Tongue River supported several communities. Native Tribes relied on this sacred land for generations and homesteaders chose the Tongue River Valley to begin new lives in the late 1800’s. Intertwined with the river are all the stories of those who were here before and their connection to the land. Today the Tongue River continues to support agriculture through irrigation and in turn it supports our food supply. The creek was visited primarily by the neighborhood, often simply driven by in passing. The Tongue River, on the other hand is a home-utilized and revered by many different communities.

Despite these differences, there were also enormous parallels. The rush of the current near the storm drain at the end of the creek reminds me of the strainers we navigated around on the Tongue River. The abundance of minnows in the creek and frogs on the banks were reflections of how well the creek was doing, just as the fish and beavers in the Tongue River reflect that ecosystem’s health. Both bodies of water change with the seasons, as leaves turned bright yellow and fell before us during the float.

Beyond the environmental parallels, both bodies of water connect people to the land. The Tongue River Valley was the proposed site of a coal mine and a railroad to transport the coal. Recognizing the travesty this could lead to, members from all different communities came together to fight against the development of coal in this area, especially around the watershed. We’ve been lucky enough to meet several people from different groups who have organized the community around stopping the railroad. Most of those who we spoke to grew up by this river and had ancestors who did the same. Over the years they had formed a deep connection to the river and relied on it greatly. Although they come from different backgrounds, every person we spoke to had one thing in common: a connection and respect and love for the land. By finding this common ground and working together, they were able to create a meaningful difference as the railroad has finally, after thirty years, been stopped.

As we spoke to those in the Tongue River Valley and heard about their love for the river and land, I was reminded of myself as a child and the love I developed for the creek by my house. I believe that lasting change begins with a deep seated love for a place and a personally felt obligation to protect it. As Turner wrote in The Abstract Wild, “We value only what we know and love, and we no longer know or love the wild.” The value I placed on the creek growing up stems from the time I spent sitting with the frogs and watching the leaves change. Those who fought against the Tongue River Railroad grew up on this land and know it better than anyone else – they have seen the seasons change and recognize its value. With each passing day I am grateful of my childhood by the creek, a childhood that grounded me in nature and taught me the values of knowing and loving the land.

Shannon Quinn: Silent Warriors

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

My belief is there is no feeling of greater warmth and security in nature than sitting beneath a ponderosa pine.  These wise old trees are indescribably beautiful, gentle, and majestic.  They provide shelter, a sturdy backrest, and the sweet smell of peeling vanilla bark.  The shedding of their bark and needles provide a soft bed of ground, decorated with fallen ornamental cones; they sacrifice themselves.  As I become encapsulated in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Montana, I realize that these old trees have seen more than I have in my lifetime.  Their mere existence is a metaphor for timeless wisdom and grounded spirit.  If the age-old ponderosa pine could speak, what would it say?  Perhaps its virtue lies in its silence.  Perhaps humanity couldn’t handle the truth of its visions, for these old trees have seen how the land has fought for survival.  Sometimes the land has lost at our hand.

We must be the voice for these silent warriors.  We must use our gift of verbal communication to defend that which is so important, yet cannot defend itself.  In eastern Montana, people have chosen to fight back against those who wanted to destroy the land.  The threatened invasion of the Tongue River Railroad and proposed mining of the Otter Creek coal tracks have plagued a community for over three decades.  The railroad would have cut through the precious land and forests.  The mine would have sucked the land dry of its resources, offering nothing in return but money and energy that was destined to be shipped off to be used elsewhere.  If Otter Creek were mined, the trees and wildlife inhabiting the area would have been decimated, completely wiped out forever.  Through reclamation the land and forests might eventually return to a shell of its former self.  Dry, dead, torn up and soulless soil would coat a place that once breathed life.  The plants and grasses would have been placed there, the hills carved into the landscape by machines.  It would be unlikely that trees would ever be able to grow in this kind of wasteland.  Years of reclamation can never return the earth to its true state; it desecrates the place. In this particular case, Otter Creek and the surrounding area was rescued through a twist of fate.  The people took on the task of defending the environment and community.  They said no to the railroad and the mine.  They used their voices to protect what belonged to them and what belonged to the land, and they were able to stop this development project by persistence, passion, dedication, patience, and voice.  This required the binding together of diverse groups of people, from ranchers, to farmers, to the Northern Cheyenne.  When people believe that they have the ability to speak out against government intervention that they believe is wrong, then they are able to defend the wildlife, landscapes, and forests that cannot speak for themselves; those who would have so much to say if they could.

If the ponderosa pines of eastern Montana could speak, they might speak of the battles they have seen as humans fought for their rights to the land and to existence.  They might speak of the changes to the landscape that occurred from these battles.  They might express gratitude and respect for those who have dedicated their time to learning to understand them and to protect them from harm.  The ponderosa pine that I sit beneath today almost did not exist to see my lifetime.  I like to imagine a world where future generations might be able to sit beneath the same tree long after I am gone.