Brooke Reynolds: Shifting from the “East of Billings” Mindset

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WRFI Instructor, Nick Littman, posing along the Tongue River. Photo Credit: Ryan Marsh. 

Towering yellowed Cottonwoods loom above me, filtering the sunlight through their dancing leaves so that amber light ripples across my hands and face.  The world is completely silent except for the sweet song of the wind and the gentle rhythm of paddles dipping into the cool, calm waters of the Tongue River. Not a single cloud touches the cerulean sea of sky.  Here, there is a sense of serenity pumping through my veins and it seems the same for those around me (except maybe not for Clark). Something is uniquely beautiful about this small, meandering prairie river and its arid valley of a home; we all know it and feel it with every new bend and riffle.

John Hamilton, a farmer in the Tongue River Valley says, “People think of eastern Montana as a wasteland. They don’t realize what we have down here.” John is right… they don’t.

Never have I seen the moon so bright, the sky so frighteningly big, the earth so calm, and so fierce as I have here on the prairie in eastern Montana. There really is not a word to describe it correctly. And yet, this landscape has long been ignored because this area, the Tongue River Valley, and the rest of the bioregion is “East of Billings.”

People are funny things. We have this weird conception that some places in this world are better than others, that there are places on this earth that people deem worthy of every environmental preservation regulation in the book, and that there are places that are only worthy of being toxic waste dumps because of they lack our conventional view of beauty.  Flora and fauna do not have this insane bias. They live and grow where they can live and grow. Sagebrush grows on the prairie because that is where it can exist, not because it is more beautiful than other biomes or other biomes are more beautiful than it.

Humans do not do this. We exist, or want to exist, in places that we have socially constructed as being beautiful: mountains, oceans, vast deserts, lakes, and rivers. This construction has caused us to live within a specific paradigm: wasteland vs. Eden.

I’m tired of our society viewing some land as waste, as a place that can be ruined in order to preserve other “prettier” places. No land is wasteland. It has value. There is value to the people that call it home and to the people who once called it home; there is value to the fauna; there is value to the flora. And, no matter where you go, you can find beauty in a place. Maybe it is the way that the sun hits the horizon line every sunset, or how the rain gently falls into the caressing earth, or how the earth tucks itself into bed every night.  No place’s value should be determined by its beauty, or really be given a value at all. All places are beautiful and valuable in their own unique way.

The Tongue River Valley is threatened with potential coal development, something that will irrevocably alter the landscape, likely in an unfavorable way. Yet, the coal developers and the state of Montana do not seem to care, because the Tongue River Valley is “East of Billings,” a wasteland. To reiterate John Hamilton, “They don’t realize what we have down here.” If they did, they being the government of Montana, coal development would not even be considered. This place is too precious, too remarkable.  And yet politicians and bureaucrats think that the Tongue River Valley and eastern Montana is an unpopulated, flat landscape. Which it is; but it is also so much more.

And so we need to change our worldview of land. No land is meant for waste. All land is worthy of existing in its most natural, or healthiest state. Mentalities like “East of Billings” cannot exist. Otherwise, our earth will be destroyed, since we will not properly take care of all of her land.

Wherever you go, look for those moments like those I had on the Tongue: the sunlight rippling across my skin, the quiet voice of the wind, the soaring trees up overhead. Find these precious observations and hold onto them, because they will make you realize that no land is wasteland.

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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.