Morgan Krakow: Intentional Detours

Morgan Krakow

The American way is innovation. Lightbulbs, modern democracy, telegraphs, the postal service – the U.S. spirit of progress has plastered the nation’s history. And in many ways, the American West finds itself at the forefront of today’s innovative spirit, rooted in the longstanding values of frontier, exploration and a departure from the everyday.

Swap Edison for Bezos, the Pony Express for Gmail, and you’ll most likely find yourself somewhere along the central to northern California coast: Silicon Valley. You might end up also in L.A., Portland, or Seattle. These startup hubs are leading the way to an easier and cleaner future. So why then, in a class about climate change and renewable energy, do we find ourselves between mile marker 125 and 126 along highway 12 wolfing down couscous and showering for the first time in a week? It’s because there’s a whole other American innovator who doesn’t sip $6 lattes or check Twitter more than they go outside (regrettably, I often fall into the former category). Out here, off the busy interstates and narrow shoulders, along ranchland that calls to mind a Thomas Hart Benton piece, sprawling widely across the horizon, there’s a crop of people who are living and breathing the spirit of American innovation.

On this trip we have met and been hosted by a variety of people who believe in rural risk taking, and disobeying status quos. We met ranchers and landowners who have passive solar homes, like Steve Charter and Jean Wallace, coal miners whose work powers parts of South Korea and Japan. The miners feed their families and take part in the community of their workplace. We met Hutterites using top-of-the-line farming technology and we met climate activists in the small Montana towns. Everywhere we looked, innovation felt inherent in our conversations – new ways to burn coal, homes that didn’t need the grid anymore, renewable energy fairs in the 1970s that helped jumpstart the early environmental movement.

We arrived at Steve Charter’s ranch on a day that felt like the sun was just a little too close to our shoulders. We washed our hands in his sink and set up camp around back. Starting our grilled cheese feast, he and his friend John took the time to talk to us about Steve’s ranchland and the sustainable farming methods they had been incorporating into their soil process.

Then, Steve told us about the early days. He spoke about the 1970’s and forming the Northern Plains Resource Council, an organization that fights coal and allies ranchers to lobby the legislature. Being a rancher on land that has mineable coal is no easy task, and often it takes a level of innovation and trust in self-reliance to fight the battle.

In 1980 Steve and his wife Jeanne built a passive solar home. Almost everyone told them it was impossible. No YouTube videos or Google searches to aid in the process – just a couple of library books and strong will.

It’s hard to be an innovator, Steve explained to me as we sat on different portions of a sawed up tree trunk overlooking a sloping grassland below. The innovator takes the risk and often doesn’t reap the financial reward, but they’ve paved a path. Steve has paved many paths. He’s in the process of setting up a vermiculture business toward more fertile soil, and has led a life against coal companies and land degradation, in hopes of making a more sustainable world for his grandchildren who live just up the hill.

This trip changes how the brain works. The constant cycling, waking up with the sun, and shifting worries from career and grades to effective Shotblock rationing and how best to care for extreme heat rash has left me a lot of time for reflection. Over the last 9 or so days, I’ve tried to spend time thinking about the type of journalist I want to be, and less about the type of career I need to have. I’ve become less future-oriented. I’ve stopped monitoring every move for maximal hiring potential. Instead, I’m finding myself living minute to minute. And I’m enjoying it.

I’m surprised by how intrigued I am by rural and small-town America. I love the phenomenon of innovation in a place that can get slogged into a singular category of old and dated in a national narrative. As I continue to reflect, I find that I am drawn to these places.

It’s easy to get caught up in fads as a storyteller. The Tesla-driving entrepreneurs of my generation are on the future’s forefront. They’re my friends. They create helpful apps, love the outdoors and big cities. They’re all over the science and tech section of every major newspaper and magazine. Young people living in major cities seem to be creating a bigger, better and more sustainable tomorrow at every moment. But for me, true storytelling will deviate from these narratives.

This trip is a lesson in view finding. When everyone else seems to be flocking to a shiny gadget or app, I’ll be taking a detour off the major highway and onto a dirt road far from a Starbucks or Apple store, with shorter lines and quieter alleys. The best stories of American innovation sometimes happen where everyone seems to be overlooking. While I might not be able to hitch onto a bike and send it to rural Montana for every story, I’ll take the lessons I’ve learned from the pace and space of this trip long into my career.

P.S. if anyone reading this hears about job openings for bike-bound journalists, give me a call.

Claire Longcope: To Know a Place

claire 2

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.

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


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.


Olivia Walcott: From Michigan to Montana: My Crash Course in Montana’s Energy Industries

Oliva blog

Passion will take you to the wildest places. Exactly one year ago I was returning from orientation at Northern Michigan University. My mind was filled with trivial things like dorm room color schemes. Today, I found myself in eastern Montana trying to convince a bike loaded down with a month’s worth of gear to climb yet another hill. I have quickly discovered that biking gives you lots of time to reflect. Between wind noise and traffic whipping past conversation is not really an option. Honestly, even if there had been no traffic or breeze I don’t believe I could’ve managed a conversation while gasping for breath. So during today’s 27 miles my mind was filled with the obscureness of the situation I have so willingly thrown myself in.

When I signed up for the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Cycle the Rockies course I had never been to Montana, never bike toured, and my camping experience was limited to weekend excursions and car camping. Heck, when I paid my tuition for the course I didn’t even have a working bicycle. Now I am four days into this trip with roughly 670 miles laying before me. As much as I look forward to the biking and camping ahead, this is an academic course. So in the past 82 hours I have received a crash course in Montana’s coal industry, utility business and environmental activism.

As a native Michigander, coal is somewhat of a theoretical natural resource to me. I know that I’m dependent on coal for electricity. I know that a transition to solar and wind power are needed to cut carbon emissions. However, never before have I considered the impacts of domestic and global coal markets, railroads, bankrupt corporations giving executives golden parachutes. There’s enough jargon and complex policy to make your head spin. I often found myself wondering how on earth someone who lives in Montana — someone with a full-time job and family to take care of — stays informed and active on the so many energy-related issues here.

Today, the coal industry is on the ropes. The largest companies, many of which operate in the Powder River Basin, in Montana and Wyoming, have filed for bankruptcy. Coal is piling up at mines because it can’t be sold profitably. Coal-fired power plants are shutting down left and right due to cheaper natural gas and the steady growth of renewables.

The sun continues to shine and the wind is always blowing somewhere. I understand that I need coal to form the steel that makes my bike frame that allows me to ride 700 miles through Montana and study energy production, consumption and policies in the field. However, there needs to be a plan in place for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. That is the way that the markets and energy industries are going. We need solar power and wind turbines scattered throughout the landscape so energy is always going onto the grid.

For right now, my mind is filled with thoughts about what I can do to encourage the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources so energy-rich places like Montana can move beyond crippling boom-and-bust cycles and protect this landscape. I have hope, maybe only because at 19 years old I am still foolishly optimistic. I am confident in the people’s passion for environmental change that is stopping useless railways from being built, renewing the soil, protecting the aquifers and keeping corporations accountable for their environmental impacts.

Austin Gilbert: Closing Thoughts

11214095_1032122926800240_7559150179455135410_nOur month-long bike tour across Montana is coming to an end. We stop for lunch just outside the park and, inevitably, go for a much-needed swim in the Flathead River. As I ease myself into the cold water, suddenly I forget my frustrations from the last couple of days. Heat, hunger, traffic, and exhaustion no longer matter to me. I am content to enjoy the cool water and beautiful surroundings of Glacier National Park.

Glacier is nothing new to me. I have lived in Montana for about seventeen years, and visit the park often. While we were in Helena a couple weeks ago, I saw some framed, unmarked photographs on the wall in a local wine shop. I instantly recognized them as being from the park, so I asked the shopkeeper about them. Although I hadn’t had the confidence to say anything specific, it turns out I had correctly identified both the trails the pictures were taken from. The true beauty of this park, for me, is that no matter how many times I visit, I never cease to be amazed. Sometimes, I have to restrain myself from taking pictures of the same peaks and streams that I have already photographed hundreds of times before. It is certainly a very special place.

Visiting Glacier also makes me feel very small. It makes one realize how insignificant we are, as humans. It is difficult to fathom the sheer power and time it took to create this magnificent place.  Our world, in various states, has been around for much longer than is easy to imagine. All of human history is but a small dot on the timeline of the Earth. We are so insignificant compared to nature that I can begin to see why many people are skeptical that we could have any noticeable impact. Of course, I am talking about climate change.

Unfortunately, it seems clear that human activities do contribute to climate change, and therefore the changing ecosystems here in Glacier National Park. If we were causing these changes in a more obvious, tangible way, there would be an uproar.  But climate change is subtle, intangible, and shrouded in uncertainty. It is difficult for a layman to conclusively identify the effects, especially when they are masked by the variations of local weather. A walk to the beach won’t reveal a slowly rising ocean, a day hike won’t shed light on climbing timber lines, and a skyward glance can’t expose the pollution in our air. This makes addressing climate change a lot more of a challenge. By the time these changes are clearly apparent, it may be too late.

Sometimes our future can look very bleak. The world’s proven fossil fuel reserves are nearly five times that of what some scientists believe we can safely burn and still have a reasonable chance of keeping average global temperature rise below 2˚C. There is an extraordinary economic incentive to continue depending on fossil fuels – the necessary infrastructure for and reliance on fossil fuels has been built up for over two centuries. This also makes the possibility of a quick transition to alternative energy sources seem unlikely. If fossil fuels were the most convenient energy source and it still took us two hundred years to develop the system to where we are now, how could we possibly speed up the process to develop a new system in less than half a decade?  Can we truly reduce global emissions enough to see a difference?

However, as I sit here in the park, surrounded by age-old mountain peaks, I am somehow more optimistic. I wonder; if we are powerful enough to unwittingly change nature for the worse… what sort of positive change might we be capable of? Sure, a global energy revolution has never happened before in such a short time, but by no means does that mean it is impossible. It will not be easy; but we are a cause of climate change. So surely if we put our mind to it, we are capable of doing something about climate change. We just have to make that choice.

Cory Horton: Change is Possible

11041211_1032123086800224_4029413349476173955_nOver the past four weeks, I have learned a great deal about climate change. It has become apparent to me that this is the biggest and most difficult issue that the world faces today. There have been many analogies drawn between this movement and successful movements of the past. Abolition, women’s rights, the civil rights movement of the sixties, and gay and lesbian rights are all social movements that have seen success in the past.

However, climate change, as I see it, is much different than these examples. For one it is an issue that needs to be addressed by the global population. Moreover, if addressing climate change is met with success, it will affect everyone on the planet, not a specific group of people, as past movements have. Lastly, it is a call to change our global systems to benefit those who do not yet have a voice. Past movements have been fought for by groups that would see immediate benefit. To successfully incite a dramatic trend of reducing carbon emissions and the restoration of greenhouse gas levels to near pre industrial levels, the fight must be fought on many fronts.

First is the need to realize and educate ourselves of our personal consumption and activities, as well as the impact of these activities. Market forces are what drive a majority of carbon emissions. Driving these markets are individual choices. If we want the chance to address climate change we must become aware how each of our purchases drive this fossil fuel based world. If we begin to educate and inquire into these purchases and how they play out, and the factors that go into making them possible, we can learn how we are connected, and driving, this carbon emitting economy. This knowledge will give individuals the ability to make more responsible personal choices. These choices include how we transport ourselves, how we eat, how we recreate, and how we are entertained. When all of these individual choices are added up it is possible that they can make a significant impact on carbon emissions.

Next we must call on our politicians and policy makers. This will require some research into the specific issues of your nation, region and community. Through educating ourselves we will be able to find the areas where our voice can be most effective. So far, there has been very little action taken by leaders to address climate change. Though there have been numerous climate summits, there has been no success to reach any binding agreements between nations. Without a binding agreement, each nation has been allowed to continue to make choices that contribute to climate change. Though the science is relatively clear, there has been a continued neglect of this very serious issue. However, through pressure by citizens, there is hope that leaders will wake up to the severity of this situation, as well as the desire for progress to be made.

There are many ways that climate change progress can be made. It will take collective action which is difficult; however, it has been seen in the past, many times. The time for action has never been more apparent. We must educate ourselves on the ways our personal and collective choices impact markets and leaders. With enough concern, voice and inquiry there is hope that global progress can be made.

Anna Tolle: Lessons Learned

anna_tolleA month ago, I left my life on hold back in Madison, Wisconsin to try something I’ve never done before. We are now at the end of our bike tour across Montana and I’m thinking about what I can do to apply what I’ve learned to my life back home.

Our tour started in Billings, MT and ended in West Glacier National Park. As you can imagine, a lot changes over 700 miles. We went from rugged prairies and vast pastures through huge forested valleys over countless hills to the Rocky Mountain Front and, finally, into the mountains themselves. Biking through all this definitely wasn’t easy. I struggled to keep up most of the time. But as I chugged along in slow gear, I realized that a lot more was changing than just the landscape. Not only was I becoming physically stronger from hauling 85+ pounds, I was also learning a lot and growing internally.

I’m an environmental studies student and a self-proclaimed hippie, so a lot of things we learned weren’t completely life-altering. But the lessons certainly were reinforcing. I can apply a lot of what I’ve learned here in Montana to my life back in Wisconsin. What’s interesting is because this course focuses on Montana and the West, it only counts as an elective back home at UW-Madison. I would argue that a lot of what we covered on this course is applicable in my city, state, and the mid-west in general, and this course has even sparked my interest in learning more about local and state energy policies in Wisconsin. A lot of Environmental Studies classes at UW are either focused on Wisconsin (frac sand mining, native water rights), or very broad and cover international topics (world hunger, deforestation). After taking this course I got a view of a part of my country that I hadn’t seen before, the great West, and I can apply this to my future studies. I now have a perspective that a lot of my fellow students don’t have and I feel lucky to be able to share that.

I can also apply a lot of what I’ve learned to my personal life. I’ve always considered myself a bit of an environmentalist, but I know there’s always more I can do. I bike almost everywhere in Madison, but sometimes I get lazy and drive to work in the rain or snow. After biking through Montana, I know I’m tough enough to handle the Madison hills and variable weather to get groceries and such, so I will definitely bike even more. Another thing I will do is change some of my consumptive habits and encourage my friends to do the same. Although we’ve read about how personal sacrifice doesn’t always wind up doing a great deal of good (“Forget Shorter Showers”), I still think it’s important to do what we can to consume less and model that behavior for others. We’ve also read about how we need more activism and social change, and I believe that has roots in small personal transformation. I’ve learned that it’s important to share my voice, not just with friends and family but with policymakers, too. I am now more prepared to share my voice and opinions with others about environmental issues that matter to me.

After biking so far, it’s time to take a little rest – but not for long. I’ll soon be back on my bike, back in Madison, even back in class before I know it. I will have to let the time pass as it must but I certainly won’t forget all the important lessons I learned on this course, and the amazing people who became my friends along the way.