Allie Leber: Contemplations on Coal

Allie Leber Blog 2

It’s day 57. On the schedule for today, two guest speakers. First, we’ll be meeting with one of the men who was key in defeating a major proposed coal development. At this point we’re used to being presented with multiple viewpoints of an issue, we’ve even come to expect it. Sometimes we get these viewpoints over the course of a week, or even just a few days. And then there are some days when we see them both within a matter of hours. This was one of those days. We learn that just a few hours after meeting with our first speaker, we’ll be touring an open pit coal mine.

Not long after waking up, we head to meet with our first speaker of the day, Clint McRae. He and his father were major opponents of extracting the coal found in Otter Creek, one of the largest coal deposits in the world. We also learned they fought in opposition of the Tongue River Railroad, a railroad proposed as the main method of transporting said coal. After learning all of this about Clint, I was greatly taken aback to hear him open with the words “I’m not anti-coal.” But you see, Clint McRae is hardly what you’d call a communist, environmentalist, rock-licking hippie. He’s a fourth generation Montana cattle rancher.

He expanded his statement, “I’m not anti-coal, but I expect the neighbors of these facilities to be treated right. And they haven’t.” He explained coal in a way that seemed completely non-partisan. It wasn’t about whether this political party was invested in coal, or if that one was opposed to it. For him, it came down to protecting his land, and the land of his neighbors, for future generations.

It seemed to me that Clint was touching on something we’ve been studying continuously for the past two months, the 80/20 rule. This rule says that with any given mix of people, you may never be able to reach an agreement on 20 percent of the issues. These are things fundamental to people’s identities that they are not willing to compromise on.  The other 80 percent, however, is often surprisingly easy to agree upon. In general, we all want a good future for the next generation, and often, we all just want to keep things the same as they are.

This type of conflict resolution is key in reaching understandings. We are living in an era in which there is a stark division between the ends of the political spectrum. Journalist Naomi Klein says this “culture-war intensity…is the worst news of all, because when you challenge a person’s position on an issue core to his or her identity, facts and arguments are seen as little more than further attacks, easily deflected”. Clearly, facts and figures are not always key to cooperation. Understanding what people value is.

With this mentality of being open to listening to the values held by opposing sides, I tried to keep an open mind while touring Spring Creek Mine. Right from the start, it was easy to see that the people who worked there were not evil or malicious. They were good people doing what they believed to be best for them, just as Clint was. They were proud of the care Spring Creek took while extracting coal and then attempting to reclaim the landscape, and maybe rightly so. They were certainly making better efforts than any company I’ve seen back home on the east coast. Are these actions enough to qualify Spring Creek Mine as a responsible coal operation? I’m certainly in no place to decide.

I’d like to end with another quote from Clint. Echoing his opening statement, he passionately asserted, “I don’t have a problem with coal development if it’s done responsibly, but I’m beginning to wonder if it can be done responsibly.” These should be the questions we ask ourselves. The lines we draw shouldn’t be between parties, but between what is damaging to the land and to future generations, and what is not.

Advertisements

Lulu Orne: On Individualism in an Intentional Community

Lulu

It is a facet of all intentional communities that each member surrenders some amount of autonomy for the community to function. The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) is no different. Without that unspoken agreement to forfeit some of our individualistic tendencies, our group would be a dysfunctional crap storm.

What underlies this agreement is willingness to self-sacrifice for the best interest of our group.  This willingness of self-sacrifice is the same willingness that the future of humanity hinges on.

The false promises of freedom and individualism of our capitalist society, obliterate any incentive to act selflessly in our economic system. We worship mavericks of the economy who “redefined” technology and business (i.e. Bezos and Buffet). We in Western society fear the shame and discomfort of poverty. I don’t blame anyone for fearing poverty and engaging in capitalist pursuits. I know that humans are not the malicious and greedy creatures we were said to be in our Anglo-Christian creation story. We are creatures enslaved to a system that hangs like translucent silk webs, enshrouding our lives and obscuring the truth. The truth being that we don’t have to live as fear stricken creatures, subservient to a capitalist system that destroys the physical and spiritual health of the land and its inhabitants.

As I grew more and more disheartened with every profit driven person and place I encountered, I began to fear the complete destruction of the earth and its inhabitants. Ready to delve back into the discouraging throws of society after our forty eight hour recess, I climbed into the WRFI van, Garth, and watched the rolling hills pass across the windshield on our way to our first speaker of section three.

The O’Hallorans, an organic farming family based outside of Lewistown, MT, told us that living your truth in this system whose values undermine all of your own, can be found in this mantra: “Don’t be afraid of poverty or hard work.” The O’Hallorans have made it a point to foster and maintain a personal and ethical relationship with their land and animals. Within our capitalist system practices like the O’Hallorans’, that focus on engaging morally with the land rather than exploiting the land for maximum profit are selfless acts. They are selfless acts lived out in the intentional community of the earth and its inhabitants.

Within our group of ten students our sacrifices are smaller than the O’Hallorans, though not insignificant. We become our most upbeat selves in less than ideal conditions in an effort to maintain group morale. We compromise and discuss when making decisions in order to address the needs of the group as a whole rather than individual members. We share what needs to be shared (space, time, food), and we most often do so without prompting from our group-mates.  We give up our autonomy to maintain our schedule. This schedule is the main tool we have for obtaining our goal of educating ourselves on the land and how we ought to live with it.

These “sacrifices” I have made as an individual do not feel like sacrifices, and the O’Hallorans echoed this during their time with us. These “sacrifices” have become an inseparable part of day-to-day life. They are habits. They are expectations, and humans have an unyielding ability to rise to the expectations that are set for them.

If we as a society were to step away from capitalist rhetoric and towards a more communal culture focused on living with the land rather than against it, we would be achingly close to the society we need to create. Sacrificing some “individualism” for the sake of our species and the earth seems a justified trade to me.

These are not “sacrifices,” this is a way of life.

The Nature of Human/Land Relations by Gavin Ratliff

Gavin Blog 2

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.

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

Clark photo

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

IMG_3600

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

maizie blog one

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.