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.

Claire Anderson: Mad World

clairesblog“Effective protest is grounded in anger, and we are not consciously angry. Anger nourishes hope and fuels rebellion, it presumes a judgement, presumes how things ought to be and aren’t, presumes a caring. Emotions remain the best evidence of belief and value.” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild: A Rant

Have you ever walked into a place and been immediately taken aback by its overwhelming power? I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have felt that often. These instances stand out clearly to me because of the uninhibited emotion they provoke so naturally.

My classmate, Shane, and I took a walk along the Yellowstone River after climbing out of the vans following our drive from White Sulphur Springs. We had just driven into a glowing golden valley with the Yellowstone River perfectly framing our campsite and it was all a bit overwhelming. At this particular moment I told Shane I was angry. She was confused, which is understandable because this place is unbelievably beautiful and instead of being in a classroom, I was galloping through Paradise Valley just a few hours after getting cinnamon rolls from some copper miners. I had no business being angry. After thinking about it I decided anger probably wasn’t the correct emotion, but I was feeling something strong for sure. I was angry (for lack of a better word) because this place is stupidly beautiful and there is no way my camera or my mind and memories will ever do it justice. I want this place to remain this unfairly beautiful, I want other places of the same caliber to retain their charm and stunning beauty and I want everyone to be able to see these places and feel this power I felt at that moment.

We’ve seen the extremes when it comes to water quality. The Missouri River has been polluted over and over by agricultural runoff and its waters are murky and dark, whereas in the Scapegoat or the Big Snowies, the waters are clear and clean. Mining threatens the coveted Smith River near White Sulphur Springs, and heavy cattle ranching threatens sensitive prairie ecosystems that only exist in large quantities in a few places in the world. Threats such as these could drastically alter the heart wrenching beauty of these natural places.

I’m very aware of my own emotions and generally have very strong, gut reactions to things that make me happy, and even more so to things I know are wrong. Stories of injustice towards what I care most deeply about, such as my mom, dad, or brother hit me the hardest. I don’t like negativity, it fires me up, and I’ve worked really hard in the past years to sit on my initial feelings for a bit and think about what is making me feel this way. From there I am able to more rationally attempt to see the other side of the story and decide a plan of action. My parents have pushed my brother and I to take what we felt were undeserved attacks from other people and try to see their side of the story and understand the other person’s motives. Because after all, anger is a strong and often hard-to-sort-out emotion.

Anger and other gut reaction emotions reveal what we believe deep down in our core. This anger that builds, and the feelings that quickly follow it, despair and some hopelessness, then an absolute burning need to do something about whatever ticked ya off, that’s how you determine your fiery passions. That’s when you know things are not the way they ought to be, your beliefs and values are blindingly apparent, and a call to action has laid itself out. Rebellion is the only option at this point and deep down there’s that hope that Turner mentions, that change is a possibility, although at first the situation appeared bleak.

This is how we get change. People who are so fired up about something are the ones that get things done and don’t settle for anything less than what they feel is right deep down in their gut. Anger is not a very pleasant emotion, which is why it works so well as a propellant. People generally want to stop being angry, I know I do. So when people become angry, they figure out what this anger is telling them and they go out and do something about it, and if they don’t go out and do something about it, they darn well should.

We have an obligation to be angry about the environmentally damaging behavior that happens today. As upsetting as this damage is, I also fully realize that my lifestyle contributes to the degradation and that I have the capability to make changes to mitigate that. By not actively trying to prevent mining and sensitive habitat destruction, we are indirectly giving our approval of these practices and letting precious places slip through our fingers. We are preventing future people from experiencing these places and learning their importance. This course has certainly solidified in me the understanding that the best way to fully comprehend these beautiful places is to experience them first hand. I want people in the future to be able to do that as well, instead of only being able to learn about them through a textbook.

I struggled with the term anger ecology when I first heard it. I don’t like to be fueled by anger, so you can see where my discomfort stems from. Jack Turner’s paper “The Abstract Wild: A Rant” helped ease me into the whole idea. Anger ecology does not encourage staying angry forever about something observed in the world that appears to be completely unfair. It’s about finding a driver that helps us determine what deeply matters to us, this driver that starts out as anger turns into an unwieldy passion and love for something that may not have been obvious from the beginning. Anger is just the little bit of fuel needed to get the real fire going.

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.

Claire Longcope: Where the Rubber (Literally) Hits the Road

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Bikes along the barbed wire at Steve Charter’s ranch in Shepard, MT

I’ve been stuffed full of new information in the last few days. New terms, acronyms, concepts, as well as new people, places, and a new activity: bike touring. It’s a good kind of stuffed, though, and I’m excited for more. Here’s a bit about two of the things that have stuck with me the most so far:

Montana is “where the rubber hits the road” in terms of coal reserves.

Fitting isn’t it, that we’re biking across the state where the rubber hits the road? My eyes have been opened up to the scale and importance of the issues we’re learning about. One quarter of U.S. coal is under Montana, with a bunch of the rest of it spread across the border into Wyoming. Other things I didn’t know: The coal here burns a lot less “dirty” (more efficiently) than the coal of Appalachia. And, the reserves of Montana are largely owned by the government. I also learned that “Colstrip” is not just a coal-strip, but a town that that is home to a mine-mouth power plant. We didn’t visit Colstrip, but its future is a topic on the minds of so many we visit with. Colstrip is the 8th largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the Unites States. Contributing to that pollution is the leaking of the coal ash/waste ponds, which have been leaking 300 gallons per minute of toxic “water” under Colstrip for 22 years. This is expected to be a big issue as coal plants are decommissioned. Organizers Mike Scott and Alexis Bonogofsky, who hosted us for three nights, are trying to make sure Colstrip is cleaned up by its several owners and not by taxpayers. Brings me back to the class I took this spring about the nexus of energy, economics, and the environment, where my professor would remind us nearly every class: “There is no free lunch.”

Sometimes things tilt in the universe. Don’t give up.

Teresa Erickson, director of the Northern Plains Resource Council, based in Billings, Montana, has spent 30 years fighting for what she believes in. It wasn’t until recently that things started going her way. Along with hard work by her and her colleagues, Erickson attributed the decrease in coal demand to “something tilt[ing] in the universe.” I liked that saying, and in the future I expect to ascribe things in my life being due to the “tilting of the universe.” It could be a positive or negative tilt, I guess.

Northern Plains Resource Council is now celebrating their win in the battle against the proposed Tongue River Railroad and Otter Creek coal mine it would have served. Several times Erickson referenced the lack of attention her region of the country gets in regards to their well-being while located in a coal-heavy area: “No one gives a sh*t about eastern Montana,” she said bluntly.

In talking with Erickson it was clear how interconnected her passion and her job are. Near the end of our meeting, she described some of the lessons she’s learned over her time as a community organizer. A few of them didn’t come as a surprise: “Justice doesn’t come from doing nothing.” “Being positive or negative is contagious.” “Hope is not a strategy.” Others, however, were almost shocking to me. She is not quite a believer in the “there is good in everyone” mantra. Instead, she said it’s okay to have enemies, seek power, and to make sure to claim credit when it’s due. I didn’t know what to think. Initially, I was thrown off by these ideas, but remind myself now that these are strategies for activism, and I’m left very impressed and inspired by her well-earned confidence and insight.

I can’t wait to see the places this course will take us over the next 20 days.