Beth Porter: The Coal We Burn

bethTwo things that have never failed me on our journey through Montana are the nightly series of lilac sky sunsets, encompassing fiery red and pink clouds and a lingering lightness, and an ever-changing landscape. As we rolled from Yellowstone County through Musselshell, Golden Valley, Wheatland, Meagher and currently Lewis and Clark County, I have witnessed the surrounding landscape evolve day by day. I have been mesmerized by the folded and slanted stratification of sandstone from ancient marine sediment and outcrops of archaic igneous dikes that have surpassed time and the rock that once overlaid it.

In the past weeks as we’ve pedaled toward the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve had the pleasure of passing several other mountain ranges including the Crazy Mountains — a marvelous sight and one of my personal favorites — and the Big and Little Belt ranges. The hills are getting steeper, meaning harder uphill climbs and more fun downhill spirals. But coming from Oregon, where mountains make more sense to me (due to a subducting oceanic plate and active volcanoes), I was curious as to how these mountains all came to be in the middle of a continent with no obvious tectonic motion.

Early in our journey, as we rode from Billings to Roundup and then Ryegate, we were surrounded by broad plains of grasses and wildflowers and rolling golden hills — perfect for cattle to graze and cyclists to build massive quads. This is also where we came across the Signal Peak coal mine, an underground operation where they said they had at least 20 years of mining left in that seam (layer of coal) alone. As we toured the mine, they explained that two thirds of their roughly 300 employees work underground at up to 800-foot under burden. This work is dangerous, but in this instance that depth illustrates just how long ago that coal was formed. The miners are literally carving out a layer of earth that first settled there about 300 million years ago and has since been compacted and covered with much more.

But why can we dig up this specific layer and burn it for energy? Hundreds of millions of years ago, when the fossil fuels we know of now were first being created, the landscape of the earth was very different than it is today. Instead of deserts and rolling ranchlands, the earth was covered in swampy forests and shallow seas that were densely populated with carbon rich plant life and peat — or layers of accumulated biomass and decayed vegetation. This was known as the Carboniferous period because a high density of carbon was being stored, along with energy from the sun via photosynthesis, in plants that sank to the bottoms of the swamps as they died. All of this stored carbon and energy was just sitting in the swamps, slowly condensing, and eventually being covered with layers of other sediment. As millions of years passed, the pressure and heat from compaction and increasing depth transformed the biomass from peat to lignite and eventually to the coal we see today. While the production of coal is a natural process, this time span makes it non-renewable and modern day earth rarely has the right conditions to again stimulate this type of production.

All in all, between the Rocky Mountains and the Bakken Formation, Montana is a geologic jackpot and it is for this reason that it is rapidly being excavated. As we toured the mine, there was a plethora of machinery, conveyer belts and crushing machines, rapidly pulling the coal from the earth and processing it for consumption. We witnessed it flying from underground and then stood atop the massive black piles, ready to be loaded into a train and shipped over seas. It was an incredible experience, but the difference in time spans still blows my mind. Something that takes millions of years to form was being processed within hours. From the mind of a student of geology, it is efficient, but slightly unsettling.


Liv Sears: It’s a Breeze

Liv Blog 2In 2005 Montana’s first wind farm, operated by Invenergy Services, took shape among the rolling hills of Judith Gap. Our group was given the opportunity to visit the farm as a quick day trip while staying in nearby Harlowton. With unloaded bikes, we traveled 13 miles north to where the ninety turbines of the Judith Gap Wind Farm rise high into the air over green meadows. Each able to produce around 1,500 kilowatts, they yield energy which is then contracted to Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy. For all those in favor of finding alternative energy sources, one would hope that wind could have the ability to open many doors of opportunity for renewable energy in Montana, a way to veer far from coal. Coal has lasting effects on surrounding towns, polluting drinking water and undermining ranch land.

We made sure to get started on the road early, hopefully avoiding chances of wind; it generally isn’t blowing in the morning, but usually picks up later. Lucky for us, it played out in our favor and we had a pleasant outing, arriving just as the turbines started to turn for the day. This is in comparison to other days where we didn’t quite luck out in the same way, often facing headwinds that varied from a mild breeze to intense gusts, forcing us to lean into it to prevent from swerving into the grassy landscape that parallels the road. With our experiences, it’s hard to believe that wind wouldn’t be an efficient and abundant energy source in Montana.

Invenergy is a privately owned (and primarily renewable) energy producer with about 35 sites in the United States and even more internationally, generating energy through wind, solar, and thermal, and even trying to make progress with the battery storage obstacle. During our visit we were able to both explore the wind farm system as well as understand the center of operations that control the turbines and the energy that is produced.

Our guidance through this day came from the facilities manager, Michael, a man with experience in the wind energy production business. After a similar job elsewhere, he relocated to Montana to begin work with Invenergy. However, he expressed that this job was not taken only because it was familiar, but because he can appreciate the opportunities that develop from a rural lifestyle. While experiencing enjoyment from what Montana has to offer with recreational activities, Michael also cherishes the isolation of wide open space, the “big sky.” That, I can understand. I went into this day expecting compelling conversations and similar views in regard to the other half of our course that supports the topic of energy… climate change. But when climate change was mentioned, Michael confessed that he was not convinced. Maybe I was wrong to assume that a manager of a renewable producer would consider the effects that humans and fossil fuels have on the environment. He could admit that things are changing, but things change all the time, right? It’s a perspective we hear often from climate change skeptics.

So why was he working so hard to find success with wind energy while coal is still more reliable? As he explained, energy prices in Montana are inexpensive, and Northwestern is getting a good deal with their energy and transmission. It’s all about the economics. And that is what I realized goes for Michael too. Of course a steady income is top priority for some, so maybe it’s too idealistic to think that everyone would be motivated to pursue these projects because it is simply good. It’s hard to look past the disconnect between the motivation and the end goal. But if that motivation does happen to be money, Michael and Northwestern have found themselves an effective and inexpensive opportunity. Simply shown in data from the Public Service Commission, a board of individuals who regulate services such as energy and transportation, costs of energy production for Northwestern energy (per megawatt-hour) is less than half at Judith Gap than it is at Colstrip, the largest coal producer for the company. Not only that, but when considering the initial build, maintenance, and costs to operate the business, it is still significantly lower than coal, and continuing to decline as technologies advance.

Mia Tompkins: Bridging the Gap

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Photo Credit: Oliveah Sears

As the first 20 miles of the winding, steadily inclined road came to an end, I got off my loaded bike feeling stiff, sunburnt, and tired. We had reached the Signal Peak Coal Mine, and I had assumed that I’d have a hard time relating to or empathizing with people who live such different lives and have such different values from me. However, what I have found is that I’ve felt continuously amazed not only by the love that people feel for this state, but also by the tenacity, passion, and persistence with which rural Eastern Montanans fight for what they believe is right.

It was clear from the way she spoke about her land that Alexis Bonogofsky’s identity was deeply intertwined with her landscape. She has a big, kind smile and strong blue eyes, and lives on a ranch just outside of Billings, Montana. When one morning she woke up to the usually clear waters of the Yellowstone river that meander through her property oozing with thick black oil from the Exxon oil pipe that burst, the memory was enough to bring tears to her eyes even after many years had passed. Alexis explained that the days after the oil spill were the most stressful time of her life. The anxiety that came from Exxon’s harmful cleanup efforts, and the health problems that came from inhaling the toxic fumes that enveloped her land, made for a difficult few years as she and her land worked to recover. Since then she has been more motivated than ever in her efforts towards environmentalism and community organization around climate action.

Steve Charter, a kind, scruffy rancher who wears a sweat stained cowboy hat owns his summer range north of Shepard, MT, near the Signal Peak Coal mine. The land has been in his family through several generations, and the tall golden grasses and the rich fertile soil has become more important than just for the livelihood of his cattle. He explains that he has a personal relationship with the land. This relationship is maintained as the care and effort he puts into the earth is reciprocated when the land provides him with healthy growth and abundance. When the Signal Peak Coal Mine threatened the stability of the landscape and his aquifers, his family began a resistance that has persisted for 40 years. Both Alexis and Steve embody what it means to be connected to a landscape. The distinction between their land and their identity is blurred as the hours of work and reward accumulate. Both Alexis and Steve have dedicated too much of their lives toward their environmental effort for their relationship with their land to be anything short of an infatuation.

As I’ve been listening to stories throughout the last couple of weeks, I realized that looking past the immediacy of the things that impact people directly can be very difficult. The topics of concern differed at Signal Peak Coal Mine and in its neighboring town, Roundup, MT. City Councilwoman, Nicole Bonner, remembers the poor quality of the drinking water in Roundup as far back as when she first moved in as a young girl. Since then, abandoned coal mines that lacked the finances for any clean-up efforts have added rust and a burnt red tint to the drinking water. When the Signal Peak Coal Mine began mining, Nicole recalls the economic boost that it provided for the town of Roundup and its population which teeters around 1,000 people. It helped pay for property taxes, it helped build a new school, and it provided good paying local jobs when they were scarce. Seven years ago, the flood of the Musselshell River that runs through town left it behind in a state of devastation. The flood roared through the small town’s already ancient, fragile, and in some places rotting and collapsing infrastructure, and left it beaten and battered. The people of Roundup remember the financial generosity of the Coal Mine during the difficult days of reconstruction and repair. Roundup views the economic help from the mine as providing immediate and valuable services to a town that had little chance of gaining momentum on its own. When the problems at hand are as fundamental as healthy drinking water, or money to help rebuild the homes swept away by a flood, Nicole explained that climate change tended to take the back burner, while the coal miners’ contributions provided relief that the town members remember and greatly value.

Within the culture of the coal mine, the close-knit community felt a lot of pride for their work. Signal Peak is the only underground coal mine left in Montana, and no other export or generating scale mines have ever existed in Montana. The labor intensive work and the 12 hour shifts are stressful and risky. Yet the time spent together and the comradery throughout the long days have created a family like atmosphere in the workplace. Our tour guides, Byron from Colstrip, MT, and Sam from Roundup, MT, both emphasized the importance of trust and the community between coworkers on the job. Byron said that his favorite part about his job is the people he works with. He also said that when Donald Trump (who promised to end the war on coal that had been threatening the coal miner’s good paying jobs) was elected, that “morale around here really went up.” Even though he admitted that Trump can’t change the market, and that he hasn’t done anything that will help them, the relief and the appeal to the group that had been feeling overlooked went a long way. It was clear that the narrative throughout the workplace was one of “global citizenship.” The guilt that I had imagined some of them might be feeling about the emissions that result from their work was instead replaced with pride for their contributions in helping power and provide energy for people around the globe.

Feeling connected is an important aspect of human fulfillment, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. At times it is a connection to a landscape that fuels the fight for environmentalism like with Alexis and Steve. Other times it is a community that one grows up in that is dependable and always feels like home despite its hardships and setbacks. And sometimes is the job that provides one with the satisfaction of knowing their contribution to helping provide electricity, and with it the feeling of comfort and security that connects one with the rest of the world. Even though I share different values and opinions with many of these people, I like knowing that they are there. I found comfort in knowing that there are many different ways to live this life. Instead of making me feel detached, engaging with so many different lifestyles and opinions has made me feel more connected to my state.

Beth Porter: Turn Down for What?

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When thinking of energy generation, the biggest questions often revolve around which source is best and why. There are debates for renewables, claiming more efficiency and less environmental impact, and there are debates for finite sources, claiming that we can make coal clean and need to keep our citizens employed.

Though the grid provides the majority of people the everyday convenience of constant energy with the flip of a switch, it is a complicated system. It draws from all forms of energy generation and encompasses generators, transformers, inverters, utilities and energy transport — and this intricacy is why the source of electricity is often overlooked. Most people charge their phones and crank up their air conditioning in the heat, calling for action and a switch to renewables without really considering the source of pollution. While I do believe big business and deregulation is largely to blame for inefficiency, environmental racism and an added environmental burden (i.e. polluting waterways, draining aquifers, atmospheric toxins, or dumping trash in not cool places), demonizing coal workers, or any energy laborer whose perspective on climate change and energy is different than an environmental advocate’s, is not going to solve any problems.

The people that indulge in said conveniences of instant power — myself included — need to recognize that electricity is a privilege and ultimately, we are the deepest root sucking from these sources. Without our demand, energy generation wouldn’t be a problem. Or even better, with our demand we can transform the system so that factories (which consume approximately 30% of US electricity) and buildings are more efficient from the start.

After visiting with the Northern Plains Resource Council and one of our hosts, Jean Wallace, my ideas of optimum efficiency have grown. The most efficient and environmentally friendly option isn’t to stop fracking or use solar instead of coal. The most efficient energy saving technique is to not use it in the first place, and this can be made increasingly possible with proper infrastructure and building policy.

One of the first days of the trip we visited the Northern Plains office, a Leed Platinum certified building, meaning it has the highest rank for energy and resource efficiency. Not only was the building and everything inside made 96% from recycled material, including sunflower seed husk counter tops and recycled glass for the parking lot, but they also cut back 30% of their electricity use by installing reflective light boxes to efficiently utilize natural light. They also installed “outsulation” and had a super-efficient heating system that gets its power from solar energy and had no air conditioning, but rather cooling towers that take advantage of outside air and filter it through the building. Overall, they said they almost never have lights on and when they do need electricity it is covered by their solar array.

Another example of construction efficiency came from our host Jean Wallace, who built a passive solar house into the side of a hill. When designing the house she made the walls of thick concrete to trap and maintain heat, and the windows are strategically placed for maximum natural light without being blinding. Again, any energy costs she had were offset by personal renewable sources, but overall she almost never has a need for a heat source, air conditioning, or lighting.

I know there are some flaws in this plan and some things are unavoidable. For example, our increasing amount of technology is reliant on electricity for power and there is no way to mitigate that other than asking the masses to turn off their devices — which isn’t going to happen — or creating better batteries. There is also the issue of cost and convenience. Raising energy productivity would mean retrofitting existing buildings and building new things smarter and with better technology; this is not something that everyone can afford, or if they can, they may see it as threatening their comfort.

Overall, I know our current policy is not on track to incentivize greener construction, but I hope in the future utilizing these techniques can become more commonplace. All over the world we are seeing improvements in energy efficiency and the implementation of more renewables, with any luck, we will stay on this positive track to a brighter future (without turning the lights on)!

Oliveah Sears: East to West

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Photo Credit: Emma Thompson

As I experience the variety of things that Montana has to offer, I am taken by how many aspects of this area differ from what I have known: from landscapes to accessibility of resources to even the nature of interactions with each individual. I’m used to the steady rolling hills that surround my New Hampshire home town, usually a vibrant green. Sometimes another small town will pop up, but other times I will be among beautiful mountains – or “hills” according to some people out West. That is what I’m used to and where my comfort level lies. I’ll go through most of my days with family or friends, most of them valuing the same things as me and enjoying similar activities. This contributes to a solid connection, almost as if my whole life so far has allowed me to be mindful of where I go and who I’m with, keeping that comfort within reach. It wasn’t until I was removed from these comforts that I was able to see that they have been a barrier to thinking in a more open minded way.

So here I am in virtually the opposite place from my average life. In the matter of a few hours that we spent riding in a van from Missoula to Billings, MT, we passed numerous different landscapes. From tree filled mountains to some with trees more sparse, to roadside views of what was a forest but had been affected by a fire. Then among the hills came cliffs with intricate and unique rock formations, followed by land owned by ranchers with grazing cattle, then back to a totally different rock formation. The land was unlike anything I would see back at home. I’m not usually exposed to so much geographical variety. This is comparable to my exposure and similarities with those I interact with in my day to day life back home. Here, I have encountered individuals with many backgrounds and perspectives unlike my own. Specific to this course, I am referring to views on climate change. Although New Hampshire is filled with individuals who hold different views, I surround myself with people who I can connect with easily: my friends, family, and classmates never seem to fall far from what I believe. Now here, with the wide variety of individuals that I have interacted with, I have been introduced to a whole other population of people with insight of their own. This has been a wakeup call for me, a young adult who thinks she knows what goes on everywhere.

It only took a half hour from the time I stepped off the plane to the start of this realization. After gathering my bags and catching a cab, it wasn’t long until I was talking about climate change with the cab driver. He expressed his disbelief in climate change with reasoning that was valid to himself and his values. He voiced his skepticism of the term “climate change” and didn’t directly see a change in the climate. From his own research he claimed that temperature fluctuations have occurred before and education fails to give students the researched evidence to show it. I sat and listened and was rattled by how fast my confidence vanished. But as we continued to talk, I tuned in to the fact that we were actually having a discussion, trying to understand and listen to where the other was coming from. With all of the controversy that has burdened our society, people have become obsessed with a need to be right and know what is best. With that, thoughtful discussion is something that has become so valuable yet so rare. Although we didn’t see eye to eye, we were both able to express our thoughts and, as some people say, agree to disagree. Like I said, this was within the first hour upon my arrival. Now, a week later, I have done as much listening as possible.

Walking into a coal mine was such an interesting experience. Not only was I able to get a candid look at what has been a historical power source in the US and globally, but I was also able to gain a new awareness of the people who worked and supported this industry. The miners that we talked to are proud of what they provide for people who want to turn on a light switch. They are also doing everything they can to maintain a lifestyle that is comfortable for their families. It wasn’t until I was engaging with them that I was able to develop sympathy for their hard work, whether or not I approved of the mine or agreed on political values.

These experiences have given me insight into approaching disagreements. Rather than argue to prove a point, I try to get a feel for the position that another person has, consider the context of where they are coming from and use this approach to personally investigate, validate or even question my own positions. It’s easy to make statements and target others, whether it is intentional or not, but that also comes from a place of sameness, security and absence of challenge from opposing viewpoints. It takes practice and humility, but one should also allow sensitivity when facing the real people who we are trying to work with. In order to make progress in society today, that must be recognized.

Slowing down: making time to seek common ground. By Stephanie Fisher

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Photo Credit: Mia Tompkins

I am a person most people typically consider busy and although it may be a true description of my involvements, for some reason the identifier has never sat right for me. Now, as I follow the road’s edge on a bike trip, disconnected from the hustle and bustle of life in Missoula, I feel good. This adventure has allowed me to step back and reflect upon things I love the most – even bringing them into a whole new light.

I also realized that I haven’t really been extending myself beyond the bubble of my communication zone, especially when it comes to talking about climate change and politics. There’s comfort in knowing I am constantly surrounded by people who share similar convictions, philosophies, and feelings. This trip has reminded me about how support and togetherness is always subject to conversational change.

Cycle the Rockies has created an opportunity for us, as students, to practice reaching beyond comfort levels while encouraging recognition of common ground and seeking understanding of those who feel differently. This has been emphasized as a resounding point by speakers and hosts we’ve visited with.

Our first three days were spent in Billings, Montana, at the Bonogofsky Ranch. As we pulled into Tired Man Road we were greeted by an energetic group of dogs and a warm, welcoming smile from Alexis Bonogofsky. Our time with Alexis is one that I will never forget. Alexis and Mike Scott shared their stories about fighting against coal and their heartbreaking experience dealing with an Exxon oil spill on their property. Alexis spoke to how important it is that we listen thoughtfully to varying and sometimes opposing views in hopes of seeking out common ground. Conversations like these serve to remind us that we’re in this resource consumption matter together. It is becoming clear that climate change and resource management seem to have become such polarized and politicized topics, to the point of creating controversy and flat out disagreement. Alexis also mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind and willingness to learn. As I pedaled out of Billings I thought, “I really like it here.” The kindness I felt from the people I met in Billings was refreshing and one of the many reasons I love Montana.

During our second day in Billings, we toured the Northern Plains Resource Council. The non-profit’s goal aims to organize and advocate for family-based sustainable agriculture and ranchers, support and protect natural resources, and lobby to the government in support of a better Montana economy. Larry Winslow, News and Communication Coordinator, spoke with our group about their battle to stop coal mining in Colstrip, just over an hour southeast of Billings. Their strong emphasis on ways to “disconnect” is causing isolationism amongst people. This disconnect seems to be rooted in value differences. During our conversation with them I kept asking myself: “how do we rebuild the essential bridges that once connected the people in our country to one another?”

Each of us settled into our own version of nervous as we began our first fully loaded day of riding. Our first destination was Steve Charter’s ranch just west of Shepherd, Montana. The morning started with an adventure through a city park with a supposed bike trail. We eventually got to a part of the trial that was slightly flooded, and it led us to a completely flooded area filled with knee-high water! Mosquitoes swarmed us almost immediately as we battled and pushed our newly weighted bikes through the water. Once we made it out of this swampy mosquito infested trail, we discovered the trail was a loop…oops! We carried on, faced with some headwinds, for the next 25 miles and were elated to have finally reached Steve’s ranch.

The next day we had a day of class and conversed with Steve Charter and John Brown, who does vermiculture and lives on the ranch, about holistic grazing approaches. Steve has been exploring different approaches since the 1970s. These approaches seemed successful by the obvious abundance of native grasses, prickly pear cactus, and yucca seen throughout his fields. Steve and John taught us about soil science, the connecting systems in our ecosystem, land management, and mineral rights on the ranch. Once again, the word “polarization” came up during our conversation. Steve expressed the need for resolution in order to solve issues like climate change.

Our next destination fully loaded was to the town of Roundup. On our way, we toured Signal Peak Coal Mine, which brought to light a new perspective on coal mining. The experience was a first for me, but the people I met felt familiar. While chatting with Sam and Byron I had a feeling of comfort which reminded me of my hometown community in Lawndale, North Carolina. Back home, providing for your family by having a good paying job was held in high regard. Sam spoke about how the mine offers income and benefits helping him to provide for his family. This realization is one that I will carry back to my bubble in Missoula where coal miners are condemned for their occupation. Coal miners are not the reason for our energy problems, but aim to have a good life just like the rest of us.

Reflecting on conversations with each person brings me to some essential reminders for moving forward. We must begin by listening with a mindset open to persuasion. Approach all views with an open heart and mind. Aim to converse about ways to improve life, not positional rightness. Aim to discuss common interests rather than just positions. Slow down in life and connect with those you would least expect to.

Emma Thompson: The Long Road

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The past week has been nothing short of a whirlwind adventure, pun very much intended. We’ve spent countless hours over the last several days fighting uphill against blustering headwinds that have pushed my morale to the limit, yet still provided a welcomed challenge. I have been given the unique opportunity to interact with individuals in rural Montana, from coal miners to energy-innovating hippies. Each of these experiences has allowed me to listen and gain new insight on the ways in which different individuals interact with energy and climate change. These experiences, though centered in the west, are applicable on a broader scale in furthering my understanding of the energy debate that so prominently divides our country.

While it has been a privilege to speak with individuals with whom I share common ideals and ethics, the real learning has come from interacting with those who have opposite viewpoints from my own. The most unique experience I’ve had thus far in regards to energy and climate change has been our visit to Signal Peak Coal Mine outside of Roundup, MT. It is one thing to discuss how a coal mine functions and tarnishes the environment, but it is another to experience one firsthand. I wasn’t sure what to expect since we were a group of liberal-minded college students touring a coal mine on bicycles, but to my surprise we were greeted with kindness and respect.

Our tour guides, Byron and Sam, were both surface workers, meaning they don’t participate in the actual extraction of the coal from underground but are tasked with monitoring the aboveground process of crushing, washing, and loading the coal onto trains. Wearing hard hats, steel-toed boots, and papery white jumpers, our group was given the opportunity to interact with each step of this process and ask our guides questions about their work. The experience itself was quite a trip, none of us escaping the tour without coal covering our skin and tinting our clothes. Nevertheless, I think I can speak for the group when I say all of us left with a new respect and understanding for coal miners. Byron and Sam, as well as the other miners we met in passing, all work tirelessly to provide not only for their families, but also those who receive the energy they are playing a part in creating. While they are proud of the work they do, they are also scared; scared for the security of their jobs and the unknowns of the declining fossil fuel industry. For them, the mine is a good job, one that provides them with economic stability, benefits, and a tight knit community.

In our class discussions, we have touched on the idea of privilege and the implications it can have over our lives. In pursuing a college education we have privilege. In having the opportunity to participate in this course, we have privilege. It’s become clear to me that it is one thing to have privilege, but to recognize one’s privilege and then leverage it for change and understanding, is another. After coming to this realization, I am now more aware of just how important it is to show compassion and understanding towards those who may not have the same opportunities as me, as well as those who may have different values than me. Like Byron and Sam, I too hope for financial stability and job security one day, just because our politics and views on the environment may differ, does not mean we can’t share common goals and break bread.