Stan Falkow’s story ■ Montana and me ■ Why begin with Montana? ■ Montana’s economic history ■ Mining ■ Forests ■ Soil ■ Water ■ Native and non-native species ■ Differing visions ■ Attitudes towards regulation ■ Rick Laible’s story ■ Chip Pigman’s story ■ Tim Huls’s story ■ John Cook’s story ■ Montana, model of the world ■
When I asked my friend Stan Falkow, a 70-year-old professor of microbiology at Stanford University near San Francisco, why he had bought a second home in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, he told me how it had fitted into the story of his life:
“I was born in New York state and then moved to Rhode Island. That meant that, as a child, I knew nothing about mountains. While I was in my early 20’s, just after graduating college, I took off a couple of years from my education to work on the night shift in a hospital autopsy room. For a young person like myself without previous experience of death, it was very stressful. A friend who had just returned from the Korean War and had seen a lot of stress there took one look at me and said, ‘Stan, you look nervous; you need to reduce your stress level. Try fly-fishing!’
“So I started fly-fishing to catch bass. I learned how to tie my own flies, really got into it, and went fishing every day after work. My friend was right: it did reduce stress. But then I entered graduate school in Rhode Island and got into another stressful work situation. A fellow graduate student told me that bass weren’t the only fish that one could catch by fly-fishing: I could also fly-fish for trout nearby in Massachusetts. So I took up trout-fishing. My thesis supervisor loved to eat fish, and he encouraged me to go fishing: those were the only occasions when he didn’t frown at my taking time off from work in the laboratory.
“Around the time that I turned 50, it was another stressful period of my life, because of a difficult divorce and other things. By then, I was taking off time to go fly-fishing only three times a year. Fiftieth birthdays make many of us reflect on what we want to do with what’s left of our lives. I reflected on my own father’s life, and I remembered that he had died at age 58. I realized with a jolt that, if I were to live only as long as he did, I could count on only 24 more fly-fishing trips before I died. That felt like very few times to do something that I enjoyed so much. The realization made me start thinking about how I could spend more of my time doing what I really liked during the years that I had left, including fly-fishing.
“At that point, I happened to be asked to go evaluate a research laboratory in the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana. I had never been to Montana before; in fact, I had never even been west of the Mississippi River until I was 40 years old. I flew into Missoula airport, picked up a rental car, and began to drive south to the town of Hamilton where the lab was located. A dozen miles south of Missoula is a long straight stretch of road where the valley floor is flat and covered with farmland, and where the snowcapped Bitterroot Mountains on the west and the Sapphire Mountains on the east rise abruptly from the valley. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and scale of it; I had never seen anything like it before. It filled me with a sense of peace, and with an extraordinary perspective on my place in the world.
“When I arrived at the lab, I ran into a former student of mine who was working there and knew about my interest in fly-fishing. He suggested that I come back the next year to do some experiments at the lab, and also to go fly-fishing for trout, for which the Bitterroot River is famous. So I returned the next summer with the intention of spending two weeks, and I ended up staying a month. The summer after that, I came intending to stay a month and ended up staying for the whole summer, at the end of which my wife and I bought a house in the valley. We have been coming back ever since, spending a large part of each year in Montana. Every time I return to the Bitterroot, when I enter it on that stretch of road south of Missoula, that first sight of the valley fills me again with that same feeling of tranquility and grandeur, and that same perspective on my relation to the universe. It’s easier to preserve that sense in Montana than anywhere else.”
That’s what the beauty of Montana does to people: both to those who had grown up in places completely unlike it, like Stan Falkow and me; to other friends, like John Cook, who grew up in other mountainous areas of the American West but still found themselves drawn to Montana; and to still other friends, like the Hirschy family, who did grow up in Montana and chose to stay there.
Like Stan Falkow, I was born in the northeastern U.S. (Boston) and had never been west of the Mississippi until the age of 15, when my parents took me to spend a few weeks of the summer in the Big Hole Basin just south of the Bitterroot Valley (map, p. 31). My father was a pediatrician who had taken care of a ranchers’ child, Johnny Eliel, afflicted by a rare disease for which his family pediatrician in Montana had recommended that he go to Boston for specialty treatment. Johnny was a great-grandson of Fred Hirschy Sr., a Swiss immigrant who became one of the pioneer ranchers in the Big Hole in the 1890s. His son Fred Jr., by the time of my visit 69 years old, was still running the family ranch, along with his grown sons Dick and Jack Hirschy and his daughters Jill Hirschy Eliel (Johnny’s mother) and Joyce Hirschy McDowell. Johnny did well under my father’s treatment, and so his parents and grandparents invited our family to come visit them.
Also like Stan Falkow, I was immediately overwhelmed by the Big Hole’s setting: a broad flat valley floor covered with meadows and meandering creeks, but surrounded by a wall of seasonally snow-covered mountains rising abruptly on every horizon. Montana calls itself the “Big Sky State.” It’s really true. In most other places where I’ve lived, either one’s view of the lower parts of the sky is obscured by buildings, as in cities; or else there are mountains but the terrain is rugged and the valleys are narrow, so one sees only a slice of the sky, as in New Guinea and the Alps; or else there is a broad expanse of sky but it’s less interesting, because there is no ring of distinctive mountains on the horizon—as on the plains of Iowa and Nebraska. Three years later, while I was a student in college, I came back for the summer to Dick Hirschy’s ranch with two college friends and my sister, and we all worked for the Hirschys on the hay harvest, I driving a scatterrake, my sister a buckrake, and my two friends stacking hay.
After that summer of 1956, it was a long time before I returned to Montana. I spent my summers in other places that were beautiful in other ways, such as New Guinea and the Andes, but I couldn’t forget Montana or the Hirschys. Finally, in 1998 I happened to receive an invitation from a private non-profit foundation called the Teller Wildlife Refuge in the Bitterroot Valley. It was an opportunity to bring my own twin sons to Montana, at an age only a few years younger than the age at which I had first visited the state, and to introduce them to fly-fishing for trout. My boys took to it; one of them is now learning to be a fishing guide. I reconnected to Montana and revisited my rancher boss Dick Hirschy and his brother and sisters, who were now in their 70s and 80s, still working hard all year round, just as when I had first met them 45 years previously. Since that reconnection, my wife and sons and I have been visiting Montana every year—drawn to it ultimately by the same unforgettable beauty of its big sky that drew or kept my other friends there (Plates 1-3).
That big sky grew on me. After living for so many years elsewhere, I found that it took me several visits to Montana to get used to the panorama of the sky above, the mountain ring around, and the valley floor below—to appreciate that I really could enjoy that panorama as a daily setting for part of my life—and to discover that I could open myself up to it, pull myself away from it, and still know that I could return to it. Los Angeles has its own practical advantages for me and my family as a year-round base of work, school, and residence, but Montana is infinitely more beautiful and (as Stan Falkow said) peaceful. To me, the most beautiful view in the world is the view down to the Big Hole’s meadows and up to the snowcapped peaks of the Continental Divide, as seen from the porch of Jill and John Eliel’s ranch house.
Montana in general, and the Bitterroot Valley in its southwest, are a land of paradoxes. Among the lower 48 states, Montana is the third largest in area, yet the sixth smallest in population, hence the second lowest in population density. Today the Bitterroot Valley looks lush, belying its original natural vegetation of just sagebrush. Ravalli County in which the valley is located is so beautiful and attracts so many immigrants from elsewhere in the U.S. (including even from elsewhere in Montana) that it is one of our nation’s fastest growing counties, yet 70% of its own high school graduates leave the valley, and most of those leave Montana. Although population is increasing in the Bitterroot, it is falling in eastern Montana, so that for the state of Montana as a whole the population trend is flat. Within the past decade the number of Ravalli County residents in their 50s has increased steeply, but the number in their 30s has actually decreased. Some of the people recently establishing homes in the valley are extremely wealthy, such as the brokerage house founder Charles Schwab and the Intel president Craig Barrett, but Ravalli County is nevertheless one of the poorest counties in the state of Montana, which in turn is nearly the poorest state in the U.S. Many of the county’s residents find that they have to hold two or three jobs even to earn an income at U.S. poverty levels.
We associate Montana with natural beauty. Indeed, environmentally Montana is perhaps the least damaged of the lower 48 states; ultimately, that’s the main reason why so many people are moving to Ravalli County.
The federal government owns over one-quarter of the land in the state and three-quarters of the land in the county, mostly under the title of national forest. Nevertheless, the Bitterroot Valley presents a microcosm of the environmental problems plaguing the rest of the United States: increasing population, immigration, increasing scarcity and decreasing quality of water, locally and seasonally poor air quality, toxic wastes, heightened risks from wildfires, forest deterioration, losses of soil or of its nutrients, losses of biodiversity, damage from introduced pest species, and effects of climate change.
Montana provides an ideal case study with which to begin this book on past and present environmental problems. In the case of the past societies that I shall discuss—Polynesian, Anasazi, Maya, Greenland Norse, and others—we know the eventual outcomes of their inhabitants’ decisions about managing their environment, but for the most part we don’t know their names or personal stories, and we can only guess at the motives that led them to act as they did. In contrast, in modern Montana we do know names, life histories, and motives. Some of the people involved have been my friends for over 50 years. From understanding Montanans’ motives, we can better imagine motives operating in the past. This chapter will put a personal face on a subject that could otherwise seem abstract.
In addition, Montana provides a salutory balance to the following chapters’ discussions of small, poor, peripheral, past societies in fragile environments. I intentionally chose to discuss those societies because they were the ones suffering the biggest consequences of their environmental damage, and they thus powerfully illustrate the processes that form the subject of this book. But they are not the only types of societies exposed to serious environmental problems, as illustrated by the contrast case of Montana. It is part of the richest country in the modern world, and it is one of the most pristine and least populated parts of that country, seemingly with fewer problems of environment and population than the rest of the U.S. Certainly, Montana’s problems are far less acute than those of crowding, traffic, smog, water quality and quantity, and toxic wastes that beset Americans in Los Angeles, where I live, and in the other urban areas where most Americans live. If, despite that, even Montana has environmental and population problems, it becomes easier to understand how much more serious those problems are elsewhere in the U.S. Montana will illustrate the five main themes of this book: human impacts on the environment; climate change; a society’s relations with neighboring friendly societies (in the case of Montana, those in other U.S. states); a society’s exposure to acts of other potentially hostile societies (such as overseas terrorists and oil producers today); and the importance of a society’s responses to its problems.
The same environmental disadvantages that penalize food production throughout the whole of the American Intermontane West also limit Montana’s suitability for growing crops and raising livestock. They are: Montana’s relatively low rainfall, resulting in low rates of plant growth; its high latitude and high altitude, both resulting in a short growing season and limiting crops to one a year rather than the two a year possible in areas with a longer summer; and its distance from markets in the more densely populated areas of the U.S. that might buy its products. What those disadvantages mean is that anything grown in Montana can be grown more cheaply and with higher productivity, and transported faster and more cheaply to population centers, elsewhere in North America. Hence Montana’s history consists of attempts to answer the fundamental question of how to make a living in this beautiful, but agriculturally non-competitive land.
Human occupation of Montana falls into several economic phases. The first phase was of Native Americans, who arrived at least 13,000 years ago. In contrast to the agricultural societies that they developed in eastern and southern North America, Montana’s Native Americans before European arrival remained hunter-gatherers, even in areas where agriculture and herding are practiced today. One reason is that Montana lacked native wild plant and animal species lending themselves to domestication, so there were no independent origins of agriculture in Montana, in contrast to the situation in eastern North America and Mexico. Another reason is that Montana lay far from those two Native American centers of independent agricultural origins, so that crops originating there had not spread to Montana by the time of European arrival. Today, about three-quarters of Montana’s remaining Native Americans live on seven reservations, most of which are poor in natural resources except for pasture.
The first recorded Europeans to visit Montana were the members of the transcontinental Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, which spent more time in what was later to become Montana than in any other state. They were followed by Montana’s second economic phase involving the “mountain men,” fur trappers and traders coming down from Canada and also from the U.S. The next phase began in the 1860s and was based on three foundations of Montana’s economy that have continued (albeit with diminishing importance) until the present: mining, especially of copper and gold; logging; and food production, involving raising cattle and sheep and growing grains, fruits, and vegetables. The influx of miners to Montana’s big copper mine at Butte stimulated other sectors of the economy to meet the needs of that internal market within the state. In particular, much timber was taken out of the nearby Bitterroot Valley to provide power for the mines, to construct miners’ houses, and to shore up the mine shafts; and much food for the miners was grown in the valley, whose southerly location and mild climate (by Montana standards) give it the nickname of “Montana’s Banana Belt.” Although the valley’s rainfall is low (13 inches per year) and the natural vegetation is sagebrush, the first European settlers in the 1860s already began overcoming that disadvantage by building small irrigation ditches fed by streams draining the Bitterroot Mountains on the valley’s west side; and later, by engineering two sets of large-scale and expensive irrigation systems, one (the so-called Big Ditch) built in 1908-1910 to take water from Lake Como on the west side of the valley, and the other consisting of several large irrigation canals drawing water from the Bitterroot River itself. Among other things, irrigation permitted a boom in apple orchards that began in the Bitterroot Valley in the 1880s and peaked in the early decades of the 20th century, but today few of those orchards remain in commercial operation.
Of those former bases of Montana’s economy, hunting and fishing have shifted from a subsistence activity to a recreation; the fur trade is extinct; and mines, logging, and agriculture are declining in importance, because of economic and environmental factors to be discussed below. Instead, the sectors of the economy that are growing nowadays are tourism, recreation, retirement living, and health care. A symbolic landmark in the Bitterroot Valley’s recent economic transformation took place in 1996, when a 2,600-acre farm called the Bitterroot Stock Farm, formerly the estate of the Montana copper baron Marcus Daly, was acquired by the wealthy brokerage house owner Charles Schwab. He began to develop Daly’s estate for very rich out-of-staters who wanted a second (or even a third or fourth) home in the beautiful valley to visit for fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and golfing a couple of times each year. The Stock Farm includes an 18-hole championship golf course and about 125 sites for what are called either houses or cabins, “cabin” being a euphemism for a structure of up to six bedrooms and 6,000 square feet selling for $800,000 or more. Buyers of Stock Farm lots must be able to prove that they meet high standards of net worth and income, the least of which is the ability to afford a club membership initiation fee of $125,000, which is more than seven times the average annual income of Ravalli County residents. The whole Stock Farm is fenced, and the entrance gate bears a sign, MEMBERS AND GUESTS ONLY. Many of the owners arrive by private jet and rarely shop or set foot in Hamilton, but prefer to eat at the Stock Farm club or else have their groceries picked up from Hamilton by club employees. As one local Hamilton resident explained to me bitterly, “You can spot coveys of the aristocracy when they decide to go slumming downtown in tight packs like foreign tourists.”
The announcement of the Stock Farm’s development plan came as a shock to some Bitterroot Valley long-timers, who predicted that no one would pay so much money for valley land, and that the lots would never sell. As it turned out, the long-timers were wrong. While rich out-of-staters had already been visiting and buying in the valley as individuals, the Stock Farm’s opening was a symbolic milestone because it involved so many very rich people buying Bitterroot land at once. Above all, the Stock Farm drove home how much more valuable the valley’s land had become for recreation than for its traditional uses of growing cows and apples.
Montana’s environmental problems today include almost all of the dozen types of problems that have undermined pre-industrial societies in the past, or that now threaten societies elsewhere in the world as well. Particularly conspicuous in Montana are problems of toxic wastes, forests, soils, water (and sometimes air), climate change, biodiversity losses, and introduced pests. Let’s begin with seemingly the most transparent problem, that of toxic wastes.
While concern is mounting in Montana about runoff of fertilizer, manure, septic tank contents, and herbicides, by far the biggest toxic waste issue is posed by residues from metal mining, some of it from the last century and some of it recent or ongoing. Metal mining—especially of copper, but also of lead, molybdenum, palladium, platinum, zinc, gold, and silver—stood as one of the traditional pillars of Montana’s economy. No one disagrees that mining is essential, somewhere and somehow: modern civilization and its chemical, construction, electric, and electronic industries run on metals. Instead, the question is where and how best to mine metal-bearing ores.
Unfortunately, the ore concentrate that is eventually carried away from a Montana mine in order to extract the metals represents only a fraction of the earth that must first be dug up. The remainder is waste rock and tailings still containing copper, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc, which are toxic to people (as well as to fish, wildlife, and our livestock) and hence are bad news when they get into groundwater, rivers, and soil. In addition, Montana ores are rich in iron sulfide, which yields sulfuric acid. In Montana there are about 20,000 abandoned mines, some of them recent but many of them a century or more old, that will be leaking acid and those toxic metals essentially forever. The vast majority of those mines have no surviving owners to bear financial responsibility, or else the known owners aren’t rich enough to reclaim the mine and treat its acid drainage in perpetuity.
Toxicity problems associated with mining were already recognized at Butte’s giant copper mine and nearby smelter a century ago, when neighboring ranchers saw their cows dying and sued the mine’s owner, Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Anaconda denied responsibility and won the resulting lawsuit, but in 1907 it nevertheless built the first of several settling ponds to contain the toxic wastes. Thus, we have known for a long time that mine wastes can be sequestered so as to minimize problems; some new mines around the world now do so with state-of-the-art technology, while others continue to ignore the problem. In the U.S. today, a company opening a new mine is required by law to buy a bond by which a separate bond-holding company pledges to pay for the mine’s cleanup costs in case the mining company itself goes bankrupt. But many mines have been “under-bonded” (i.e., the eventual cleanup costs have proved to exceed the value of the bond), and older mines were not required to buy such bonds at all.
In Montana as elsewhere, companies that have acquired older mines respond to demands to pay for cleanup in either of two ways. Especially if the company is small, its owners may declare the company bankrupt, in some cases conceal its assets, and transfer their business efforts to other companies or to new companies that do not bear responsibility for cleanup at the old mine. If the company is so large that it cannot claim that it would be bankrupted by cleanup costs (as in the case of ARCO that I shall discuss below), the company instead denies its responsibility or else seeks to minimize the costs. In either case, either the mine site and areas downstream of it remain toxic, thereby endangering people, or else the U.S. federal government and the Montana state government (hence ultimately all taxpayers) pay for the cleanup through the federal Superfund and a corresponding Montana state fund.
These two alternative responses by mining companies pose a question that will recur throughout this book, as we try to understand why any person or group in any society would knowingly do something harmful to the society as a whole. While denial or minimization of responsibility may be in the short-term financial interests of the mining company, it is bad for society as a whole, and it may also be bad for the long-term interests of the company itself, or of the entire mining industry. Despite Montanans’ long-standing embrace of mining as a traditional value defining their state’s identity, they have recently become increasingly disillusioned with mining and have contributed to the industry’s near-demise within Montana. For instance, in 1998, to the shock of the industry, and to politicians supporting and supported by the industry, Montana voters passed a ballot initiative banning a problem-plagued method of gold mining termed cyanide heap-leach mining and discussed further below. Some of my Montana friends now say: in retrospect, when we compare the multi-billion-dollar mine cleanup costs borne by us taxpayers with Montana’s own meager past earnings from its mines, most of whose profits went to shareholders in the eastern U.S. or in Europe, we realize that Montana would have been better off in the long run if it had never mined copper at all but had just imported it from Chile, leaving the resulting problems to the Chileans!
It is easy for us non-miners to become indignant at mining companies and to view their behavior as morally culpable. Didn’t they knowingly do things that harmed us, and aren’t they now shirking their responsibility? A sign posted over the toilet of one Montanan friend of mine reads, “Do not flush. Be like the mining industry and let someone else clean up your waste!”
In fact, the moral issue is more complex. Here is one explanation that I quote from a recent book: “. . . ASARCO [American Smelting and Refining Company, a giant mining and smelting company] can hardly be blamed [for not cleaning up an especially toxic mine that it owned] . American businesses exist to make money for their owners; it is the modus operandi of American capitalism. A corollary to the money-making process is not spending it needlessly ... Such a tight-fisted philosophy is not limited to the mining industry. Successful businesses differentiate between those expenses necessary to stay in business and those more pensively characterized as ‘moral obligations.’ Difficulties or reluctance to understand and accept this distinction underscores much of the tension between advocates of broadly mandated environmental programs and the business community. Business leaders are more likely to be accountants or attorneys than members of the clergy.” That explanation does not come from the CEO of ASARCO, but from environmental consultant David Stiller, who sought in his book Wounding the West: Montana, Mining, and the Environment to understand how Montana’s toxic mine waste problem arose, and what society really has to do to fix it.
It’s a cruel fact that no simple cheap way exists to clean up old mines. Early miners behaved as they did because the government required almost nothing of them, and because they were businessmen operating according to the principles that David Stiller explained. Not until 1971 did the state of Montana pass a law requiring mining companies to clean up their property when their mine closed. Even rich companies (like ARCO and ASARCO) that may be inclined to clean up become reluctant to do so when they realize that they may then be asked to do the impossible, or that the costs will be excessive, or that the achievable results will be less than the public expected. When the mine owner can’t or won’t pay, taxpayers don’t want to step in and pay billions of dollars of cleanup costs either. Instead, taxpayers feel that the problem has existed for a long time, out of sight and out of their backyards, so it must be tolerable; most taxpayers balk at spending money if there isn’t an immediate crisis; and not enough taxpayers complain about toxic wastes or support high taxes. In this sense, the American public is as responsible for inaction as are miners and the government; we the public bear the ultimate responsibility. Only when the public pressures its politicians into passing laws demanding different behavior from mining companies will the companies behave differently: otherwise, the companies would be operating as charities and would be violating their responsibility to their shareholders. Three cases will serve to illustrate some of the various outcomes of these dilemmas to date: the cases of the Clark Fork, Milltown Dam, and Pegasus Zortman-Landusky Mine.
In 1882 the mining companies that later became the Anaconda Copper Mining Company began operations at Butte near the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. By 1900, Butte accounted for half of the U.S.’s copper output. Until 1955 most mining at Butte involved underground tunnels, but in 1955 Anaconda began excavating an open-pit mine called the Berkeley Pit, now an enormous hole over a mile in diameter and 1,800 feet deep. Huge quantities of acidic mine tailings with toxic metals ended up in the Clark Fork River. But Anaconda’s fortunes then declined because of cheaper foreign competition, expropriation of its mines in Chile, and growing environmental concerns in the U.S. In 1976 Anaconda was bought by the big oil company ARCO (more recently bought in turn by the bigger oil company BP), which closed the smelter in 1980 and the mine itself in 1983, thereby eliminating thousands of jobs and three-quarters of the economic base for the Butte area.
The Clark Fork River, including the Berkeley Pit, is now the largest and most expensive Superfund cleanup site in the U.S. In ARCO’s view, it is unfair to hold ARCO responsible for damage done by the mine’s previous owner, before the Superfund law even existed. In the view of the federal and state governments, ARCO acquired Anaconda’s assets, including Anaconda’s liabilities. At least, ARCO and BP are not declaring bankruptcy. As one environmentalist friend told me, “They are trying to get away with paying as little as possible, but there are worse companies to deal with than ARCO.” The acidic water seeping into the Berkeley Pit will be pumped out and treated forever. ARCO has already paid several hundred million dollars to the state of Montana for restoration of the Clark Fork, and its total eventual liability is estimated at one billion dollars, but that estimate is uncertain because the cleanup treatment consumes much power: who knows what power will cost 40 years from now?
The second case involves Milltown Dam, built in 1907 across the Clark Fork River downstream of Butte to generate power for a nearby sawmill. Since then, 6,600,000 cubic yards of sediments contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc have been washed down from Butte’s mines and accumulated in the reservoir behind the dam. A resulting “minor” problem is that the dam prevents fish from migrating along the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers (the latter is the trout stream made famous by Norman Maclean’s novella and Robert Redford’s film A River Runs Through It). The major problem, discovered in 1981 when local people noticed a bad taste in drinking water from their wells, is that a huge plume of groundwater with dangerous arsenic levels 42 times higher than federal water standards is spreading from the reservoir. The dam is decrepit, in need of repair, poorly anchored, located in an earthquake zone, was nearly broken by an ice jam in 1996, and is expected to break sooner or later. No one would think of constructing such a flimsy dam today. If the dam did break and release its toxic sediments, the water supply of Missoula, southwestern Montana’s largest city located just seven miles downstream of the dam, would become undrinkable, and the lower Clark Fork River would be ruined for fishing.
ARCO acquired the liability for the toxic sediments behind the dam when it bought Anaconda Copper Mining Company, whose activities created the sediments. The near-disaster in the ice jam of 1996, and fish deaths downstream resulting from releases of water with toxic copper levels from the dam then and again in 1998, triggered recognition that something had to be done about the dam. Federal and state scientists recommended removing it and its accumulated toxic sediments, at a cost to ARCO of about $100,000,000. For a long time, ARCO denied that the toxic sediments caused the fish deaths, denied its liability for the arsenic in Milltown groundwater or for cancer in the Milltown area, funded a “grass-roots” movement in the nearby town of Bonner to oppose removing the dam, and proposed instead just strengthening it, at the much lower cost of $20,000,000. But Missoula politicians, businesspeople, and the public, who initially considered the proposal to remove the dam crazy, switched to being strongly in favor of it. In 2003 the federal Environmental Protection Agency adopted the proposal, making it almost certain that the dam will be removed.
The remaining case is that of the Zortman-Landusky Mine owned by Pegasus Gold, a small company founded by people from other mining companies. That mine employed a method known as cyanide heap-leaching, developed for extracting very low-grade gold ores requiring 50 tons of ores to yield one ounce of gold. The ore is excavated from an open pit, piled in a big heap (approximating a small mountain) inside a lined leach pad, and sprayed with a solution of cyanide, best known as the poison used to generate the hydrogen cyanide gas used both in Nazi gas chambers and in American prison gas chambers, but with the virtue of binding to gold. Hence as the cyanide-containing solution seeps through the ore heap, it picks up the gold and is drained off to a nearby pond, whence it is pumped to a processing plant for extracting the gold. The leftover cyanide solution containing toxic metals is disposed of by spraying it on nearby forests or rangeland, or else is enriched with more cyanide and sprayed back on the heap.
Obviously, in this heap-leach process several things can go wrong, all of which did go wrong at the Zortman-Landusky Mine (Plate 4). The leach pad’s liner is as thin as a nickel and inevitably develops leaks under the weight of millions of tons of ore being pushed around by heavy machinery. The pond with its noxious brew may overflow; that happened at the Zortman-Landusky Mine during a rainstorm. Finally, the cyanide itself is dangerous: in a flooding emergency at the mine, when the owners received permission to dispose of excess solution by spraying it nearby to prevent the pads from bursting, mishandling of the spraying operation led to the formation of cyanide gas that nearly killed some of the workers. Pegasus Gold eventually declared bankruptcy, abandoning its huge open pits, heaps, and ponds from which acid and cyanide will leak out forever. Pegasus’ bond proved insufficient to cover the cleanup cost, leaving taxpayers to pay the remaining bills, estimated at $40,000,000 or more. These three case studies of toxic mine waste problems that I have described, and thousands of others, illustrate why visitors from Germany, South Africa, Mongolia, and other countries contemplating mining investments have recently been coming to Montana to inform themselves at first hand about bad mining practices and their consequences.
A second set of environmental problems in Montana involves the logging and burning of its forests. Just as no one denies that metal mining is essential, somewhere and somehow, no one would dispute that logging is also necessary to obtain wood for timber and for making paper. The question that my Montana friends sympathetic to logging raise is: if you object to logging in Montana, where do you propose to get wood instead? Rick Laible defended to me a controversial recent Montana logging proposal by noting, “It beats cutting down the rainforest!” Jack Ward Thomas’s defense was similar: “By refusing to harvest our own dead trees and instead importing live trees from Canada, we have exported both the environmental effects of logging, and the economic benefits of it, to Canada.” Dick Hirschy sarcastically commented, “There’s a saying, ‘Don’t rape the land by logging’—so we are raping Canada instead.”
Commercial logging began in the Bitterroot Valley in 1886, to provide Ponderosa Pine logs for the mining community at Butte. The post-World War II housing boom in the U.S., and the resulting surge in demand for wood, caused timber sales on U.S. National Forest land to peak around 1972 at over six times their 1945 levels. DDT was released over forests from airplanes to control insect tree pests. In order to be able to reestablish uniform even-aged trees of chosen tree species, and thereby to maximize timber yields and increase logging efficiency, logging was carried out by clear-cutting all trees rather than by selective logging of marked individual trees. Set against those big advantages of clear-cutting were some disadvantages: water temperatures in streams no longer shaded by trees rose above values optimal for fish spawning and survival; snow on unshaded bare ground melted in a quick pulse in the spring, instead of the shaded forest’s snowpack gradually melting and releasing water for irrigating ranches throughout the summer; and, in some cases, sediment runoff increased, and water quality decreased. But the most visible evil of clear-cutting, for citizens of a state who considered their land’s most valuable resource to be its beauty, was that clear-cut hillsides looked ugly, really ugly.
The resulting debate became known as the Clearcut Controversy. Outraged Montana ranchers, landowners, and the general public protested. U.S. Forest Service managers made the mistake of insisting that they were the professionals who knew all about logging, and that the public was ignorant and should keep quiet. The 1970 Bolle Report, prepared by forestry professionals outside the Forest Service, criticized Forest Service policies and, fanned by similar disputes over clear-cutting of West Virginia national forests, led to national changes, including restrictions on clear-cutting and a return to emphasis on managing forests for multiple purposes other than timber production (as already envisioned when the Forest Service was established in 1905).
In the decades since the Clearcut Controversy, Forest Service annual timber sales have decreased by more than 80%—in part because of environmental regulations mandated in the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and requirements for national forests to maintain habitats for all species, and in part because of the decline in easily accessible big trees due to logging itself. When the Forest Service now proposes a timber sale, environmental organizations file protests and appeals that take up to 10 years to resolve and that make logging less economic even if the appeals are ultimately denied. Virtually all my Montana friends, even those who consider themselves dedicated environmentalists, told me that they consider the pendulum to have swung too far in the direction away from logging. They feel frustrated that logging proposals appearing well justified to them (such as for the purpose of reducing the forest fire fuel loads discussed below) encounter long delays in the courts. But the environmental organizations filing the protests have concluded that they should suspect the usual disguised pro-logging agenda behind any seemingly reasonable government proposal involving logging. All of the Bitterroot Valley’s former timber mills have now closed, because so little timber is available from Montana publicly owned timberland, and because the valley’s privately owned timberland has already been logged twice. The mills’ closing has meant the loss of many high-paying unionized jobs, as well as of traditional Montanan self-image.
Elsewhere in Montana, outside the Bitterroot Valley, much private timberland remains, most of it originating from government land grants made in the 1860s to the Northern Pacific Railroad as an inducement for building a transcontinental railroad. In 1989 that land was spun off from the railroads to a Seattle-based entity called Plum Creek Timber Company, organized for tax purposes as a real estate investment trust (so that its earnings will be taxed at lower rates as capital gains), and now the largest owner of private timberland in Montana and the second-largest one in the U.S. I’ve read Plum Creek’s publications and talked with their director of corporate affairs, Bob Jirsa, who defends Plum Creek’s environmental policies and sustainable forestry practices. I’ve also heard numerous Montana friends vent unfavorable opinions about Plum Creek. Typical of their complaints are the following: “Plum Creek cares only about the bottom line”; “they are not interested in sustainable forestry”; “they have a corporate culture, and their goal is ‘Get out more logs!’ ”; “Plum Creek earns money in whatever way it can from the land”; “they do weed control only if someone complains.”
Should these polarized views remind you of the views that I already quoted about mining companies, you’re right. Plum Creek is organized as a profit-making business, not as a charity. If Montana citizens want Plum Creek to do things that would diminish its profits, it’s their responsibility to get their politicians to pass and enforce laws demanding those things, or to buy out the lands and manage them differently. Looming over this dispute is a basic hard fact: Montana’s cold dry climate and high elevation place most of its land at a relative disadvantage for forestry. Trees grow several times faster in the U.S. Southeast and Northeast than in Montana. While Plum Creek’s largest land holdings are in Montana, four other states (Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, and Mississippi) each produce more timber for Plum Creek on only 60 to 64% of its Montana acreage. Plum Creek cannot get a high rate of return from its Montana logging operations: it has to pay taxes and fire protection on the land while sitting on it for 60 to 80 years before harvesting trees, whereas trees reach a harvestable size in 30 years on its southeastern U.S. lands. When Plum Creek faces economic realities and sees more value in developing its Montana lands, especially those along rivers and lakes, for real estate than for timber, that’s because prospective buyers who seek beautiful waterfront property hold the same opinion. Those buyers are often representatives of conservation interests, including the government. For all these reasons, the future of logging in Montana even more than elsewhere in the U.S. is uncertain, as is that of mining.
Related to these issues of forest logging are issues of forest fires, which have recently increased in intensity and extent in some forest types in Montana and throughout the western U.S., with the summers of 1988, 1996, 2000, 2002, and 2003 being especially severe fire years. In the summer of 2000, one-fifth of the Bitterroot Valley’s remaining area of forest burned. Whenever I fly back to the Bitterroot nowadays, my first thought on looking out my airplane’s window is to count the number of fires or to gauge the amount of smoke on this particular day. (On August 19, 2003, as I was flying to Missoula airport, I counted a dozen fires whose smoke reduced visibility to a few miles.) Each time that John Cook took my sons out fly-fishing in 2000, his choice of which stream to fish depended partly on where the fires were burning that day. Some of my friends in the Bitterroot have had to be evacuated repeatedly from their homes because of approaching fires.
This recent increase in fires has resulted partly from climate change (the recent trend towards hot dry summers) and partly from human activities, for complicated reasons that foresters came increasingly to understand about 30 years ago but whose relative importance is still debated. One factor is the direct effects of logging, which often turns a forest into something approximating a huge pile of kindling: the ground in a logged forest may remain covered with lopped-off branches and treetops, left behind when the valuable trunks are carted away; a dense growth of new vegetation springs up, further increasing the forest’s fuel loads; and the trees logged and removed are of course the biggest and most fire-resistant individuals, leaving behind smaller and more flammable trees. Another factor is that the U.S. Forest Service in the first decade of the 1900s adopted a policy of fire suppression (attempting to put out forest fires) for the obvious reasons that it didn’t want valuable timber to go up in smoke, nor people’s homes and lives to be threatened. The Forest Service’s announced goal became, “Put out every forest fire by 10:00 A.M. on the morning after the day when it is first reported.” Firefighters became much more successful at achieving that goal after World War II, thanks to the availability of firefighting planes, an expanded road system for sending in fire trucks, and improved firefighting technology. For a few decades after World War II, the annual acreage burnt decreased by 80%.
That happy situation began to change in the 1980s, due to the increasing frequency of large forest fires that were essentially impossible to extinguish unless rain and low winds combined to help. People began to realize that the U.S. federal government’s fire suppression policy was contributing to those big fires, and that natural fires caused by lightning had previously played an important role in maintaining forest structure. That natural role of fire varies with altitude, tree species, and forest type. To take the Bitterroot’s low-altitude Ponderosa Pine forest as an example, historical records, plus counts of annual tree rings and datable fire scars on tree stumps, demonstrated that a Ponderosa Pine forest experiences a lightning-lit fire about once a decade under natural conditions (i.e., before fire suppression began around 1910 and became effective after 1945). The mature Ponderosa trees have bark two inches thick and are relatively resistant to fire, which instead burns out the understory of fire-sensitive Douglas Fir seedlings that have grown up since the last fire. But after only a decade’s growth until the next fire, those seedlings are still too low for fire to spread from them into the crowns. Hence the fire remains confined to the ground and understory. As a result, many natural Ponderosa Pine forests have a park-like appearance, with low fuel loads, big trees well spaced apart, and a relatively clear understory.
Of course, though, loggers concentrated on removing those big, old, valuable, fire-resistant Ponderosa Pines, while fire suppression for decades let the understory fill up with Douglas Fir saplings that would in turn become valuable when full-grown. Tree densities increased from 30 to 200 trees per acre, the forest’s fuel load increased by a factor of 6, and Congress repeatedly failed to appropriate money to thin out the saplings. Another human-related factor, sheep grazing in national forests, may also have played a major role by reducing understory grasses that would otherwise have fueled frequent low-intensity fires. When a fire finally does start in a sapling-choked forest, whether due to lightning or human carelessness or (regrettably often) intentional arson, the dense tall saplings may become a ladder that allows the fire to jump into the crowns. The outcome is sometimes an unstoppable inferno in which flames shoot 400 feet into the air, leap from crown to crown across wide gaps, reach temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, kill the tree seed bank in the soil, and may be followed by mudslides and mass erosion.
Foresters now identify the biggest problem in managing western forests as what to do with those increased fuel loads that built up during the previous half-century of effective fire suppression. In the wetter eastern U.S., dead trees rot away more quickly than in the drier West, where more dead trees persist like giant matchsticks. In an ideal world, the Forest Service would manage and restore the forests, thin them out, and remove the dense understory by cutting or by controlled small fires. But that would cost over a thousand dollars per acre for the one hundred million acres of western U.S. forests, or a total of about $100 billion. No politician or voter wants to spend that kind of money. Even if the cost were lower, much of the public would be suspicious of such a proposal as just an excuse for resuming logging of their beautiful forest. Instead of a regular program of expenditures for maintaining our western forests in a less fire-susceptible condition, the federal government tolerates flammable forests and is forced to spend money unpredictably whenever a firefighting emergency arises: e.g., about $1.6 billion to fight the summer 2000 forest fires that burned 10,000 square miles.
Montanans themselves hold diverse and often self-contradictory views about forest management and forest fires. On the one hand, the public fears and instinctively dislikes the “let it burn” response that the Forest Service is forced to take towards huge fires that would be dangerous or impossible to try to extinguish. When the 1988 fires in much of Yellowstone National Park were allowed to burn, the public was especially loud in its protests, not understanding that in fact there was nothing that could be done except to pray for rain or snow. On the other hand, the public also dislikes proposals for forest thinning programs that could make the forests less flammable, because people prefer beautiful views of dense forests, they object to “unnatural” interference with nature, they want to leave the forest in a “natural” condition, and they certainly don’t want to pay for thinning by increased taxes. They (like most foresters until recently) fail to understand that western forests are already in a highly unnatural condition, as the result of a century of fire suppression, logging, and sheep grazing.
Within the Bitterroot, people build trophy homes next to or surrounded by flammable forests at the urban/wildland interface and then expect the government to protect those homes against fires. In July 2001, when my wife and I went for a hike west of the town of Hamilton through what had been the Blodgett forest, we found ourselves in a landscape of fire-charred dead trees killed in one of the big forest fires whose smoke had filled the valley during our summer 2000 visit. Blodgett-area residents who had previously blocked Forest Service proposals to thin the forest demanded then that the Service hire 12 big firefighting helicopters at a cost of $2,000 per hour to save their homes by dropping water on them, while the Forest Service, obeying a government-imposed mandate to protect lives, people’s property, and then the forest in that order, was simultaneously allowing expanses of public timberlands far more valuable than those homes to burn. The Forest Service subsequently announced that it will no longer spend so much money and endanger firefighters’ lives just to protect private property. Many homeowners sue the Forest Service if their house burns in a forest fire, or if it burns in a backfire lit by the Forest Service to control a much bigger fire, or if it doesn’t burn but if a forest providing a pretty view from the deck of their house does burn. Yet some Montana homeowners are afflicted with such a rabidly anti-government attitude that they don’t want to pay taxes towards the costs of firefighting, nor to allow government employees onto their land to carry out fire prevention measures.
The next set of environmental problems in Montana involves its soils. One “minor” and specific soil problem is that the Bitterroot Valley’s boom in commercial apple orchards, which were initially very profitable, collapsed, due in part to apple trees exhausting the soil’s nitrogen. A more widespread soil problem is erosion, resulting from any of several changes that remove the plant cover normally protecting the soil: overgrazing, noxious weed infestation, logging, or excessively hot forest fires that sterilize the topsoil. Long-timer ranching families know better than to overgraze their pastures: as Dick and Jack Hirschy expressed it to me, “We must take good care of our land, or we will be ruined.” However, one of the Hirschys’ neighbors is an outsider who paid more for his property than it could sustainably support by ranching, and who is now overstocking his pastures in the short-sighted hope of recouping his investment. Other neighbors made the mistake of renting grazing rights on their land to tenants, who overgrazed for a quick profit during their three-year lease and didn’t care about the resulting long-term damage. The net result of these various causes of soil erosion is that about one-third of the Bitterroot’s watersheds are considered to be in good shape and not eroded, one-third are at risk of erosion, and one-third are already eroded and in need of restoration.
The remaining soil problem in Montana, besides nitrogen exhaustion and erosion, is salinization, a process involving salt accumulation in soil and groundwater. While such accumulation has always occurred naturally in some areas, a more recent concern is the ruining of large areas of farmland by salinization resulting from some human agricultural practices that I’ll explain in the next few paragraphs and in Chapter 13—particularly from clearing of natural vegetation, and from irrigation. In parts of Montana, salt concentrations in soil water have reached levels double those of seawater.
Besides certain salts having specific toxic effects on crops, high salt concentrations exert a general harmful effect on crops similar to the effect of a drought, by raising the osmotic pressure of soil water and thereby making it harder for roots to absorb water by osmosis. The salty groundwater may also end up in wells and streams and may evaporate on the surface to leave a caked layer of salt. If you imagine yourself drinking a glass of “water” more concentrated than the ocean, you will appreciate that not only does it taste horrible and prevent farmers from growing crops, but that its dissolved boron, selenium, and other toxic ingredients may be bad for your health (and for that of wildlife and your livestock). Salinization is a problem today in many parts of the world besides the U.S., including India, Turkey, and especially Australia (see Chapter 13). In the past it contributed to the decline of the world’s oldest civilizations, those of Mesopotamia: salinization provides a large part of the explanation for why applying the term “Fertile Crescent” today to Iraq and Syria, formerly the leading center of world agriculture, would be a cruel joke.
Montana’s main form of salinization is one that has ruined several million acres of cropland in the northern Great Plains as a whole, including several hundred thousand acres in northern, eastern, and central Montana. The form is called “saline seep,” because salty water building up in the ground in an uphill area percolates through the soil to emerge as a seep in a downhill area up to half a mile or farther distant. Saline seeps frequently become bad for neighborly friendship when the agricultural practices of one farmer uphill cause a saline seep on a downhill neighbor’s property.
Here is how a saline seep arises. Eastern Montana has lots of watersoluble salts (especially sodium, calcium, and magnesium sulfates) present as components of the rocks and soils themselves, and also trapped in marine deposits (because much of the region used to be ocean). Below the soil zone is a layer of bedrock (shale, sandstone, or coal) that has low permeability to water. In dry eastern Montana environments covered with native vegetation, almost all rain that falls is promptly taken up by the vegetation’s roots and transpired back into the atmosphere, leaving the soil below the root layer dry. However, when a farmer clears the native vegetation to practice crop-and-fallow agriculture, in which an annual crop like wheat is grown during one year and the land is left fallow the next year, there are no plant roots to take up rainwater falling in the fallow year. That rainwater accumulates in the soil, waterlogs it below the root layer, and dissolves salts that then rise into the root zone as the water table rises. Because of the impermeable underlying bedrock, the salty water doesn’t drain deeply into the ground but emerges somewhere downhill nearby as a saline seep. The result is that crops grow more poorly or not at all, both in the uphill area where the problem arises and in the downhill area where the seep emerges.
Saline seeps became widespread in much of Montana after 1940 as a consequence of changes in agricultural practices—especially the increasing use of tractors and more efficient soil tilling devices, weed-killers to kill weed plant cover during the fallow period, and more land under fallow each year. The problem must be combatted by various intensive types of farm management, such as sowing salt-tolerant plants in the downhill seep areas to start reclaiming them, decreasing the length of fallow time in the uphill area by a crop schedule known as flexible cropping, and planting alfalfa and other perennial water-demanding crops with deep roots to take up excess water from the soil.
In the areas of Montana where agriculture depends directly on rainfall, saline seeps are the main salt-related form of land damage. But they are not the only form. Several million acres of agricultural land that depend for their water on irrigation rather than on rainfall are distributed patchily throughout the whole state, including in my summering areas of the Bitterroot Valley and Big Hole Basin. Salinization is starting to appear in some of those areas where the irrigation water contains salt. Another form arises from an industrial method to extract methane for natural gas from coal beds by drilling into the coal and pumping out water to let methane escape to the surface. Unfortunately, the water contains dissolved salt. Since 1988, the adjacent state of Wyoming, which is almost as poor as Montana, has been seeking to boost its economy by embarking on a big program of methane extraction by this method, yielding salty water that drains from Wyoming into southeastern Montana’s Powder River Basin.
To start to understand the apparently intractable water problems that bedevil Montana along with other dry areas of the American West, think of the Bitterroot Valley as having two largely separate water supplies: irrigation from ditches fed by mountain streams, lakes, or the Bitterroot River itself, to water fields for agriculture; and wells drilled into underground aquifers, which provide most of the water for domestic use. The valley’s larger towns provide municipal water supplies, but houses outside those few towns all get their water from individual private wells. Both the irrigation water supply and the well water supply are facing the same fundamental dilemma: an increasing number of users for decreasing amounts of water. As the Bitterroot’s water commissioner, Vern Woolsey, explained it succinctly to me, “Whenever you have a source of water and more than two people using it, there will be a problem. But why fight about water? Fighting won’t make more water!”
The ultimate reason for decreasing amounts of water is climate change: Montana is becoming warmer and drier. While global warming will produce winners as well as losers in different places around the world, Montana will be among the big losers because its rainfall was already marginally adequate for agriculture. Drought has now forced abandonment of large areas of farmland in eastern Montana, as well as in adjacent areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Visible effects of global warming in my summering areas in western Montana are that snow in the mountains is becoming confined to higher altitudes and often now no longer remains throughout the summer on the mountains surrounding the Big Hole Basin, as it did when I first visited in 1953.
The most visible effect of global warming in Montana, and perhaps anywhere in the world, is in Glacier National Park. While glaciers all over the world are in retreat—on Mt. Kilimanjaro, in the Andes and Alps, on the mountains of New Guinea, and around Mt. Everest—the phenomenon has been especially well studied in Montana because its glaciers are so accessible to climatologists and tourists. When the area of Glacier National Park was first visited by naturalists in the late 1800s, it contained over 150 glaciers; now, there are only about 35 left, mostly at just a small fraction of their first-reported size. At present rates of melting, Glacier National Park will have no glaciers at all by the year 2030. Such declines in the mountain snowpack are bad for irrigation systems, whose summer water comes from melting of the snow that remains up in the mountains. It’s also bad for well systems tapping the Bitterroot River’s aquifer, whose volume has decreased because of recent drought.
As in other dry areas of the American West, agriculture would be impossible in the Bittterroot Valley without irrigation, because annual rainfall in the valley bottom is only about 13 inches per year. Without irrigation, the valley’s vegetation would be sagebrush, which is what Lewis and Clark reported on their visit in 1805-1806, and which one still sees today as soon as one crosses the last irrigation ditch on the valley’s eastern side. Construction of irrigation systems fed by snowmelt water from the high mountains forming the valley’s western side began already in the late 1800s and peaked in 1908-1910. Within each irrigation system or district, each landowner or group of landowners has the right to take for his or her land a specified quantity of water from the system.
Unfortunately, in most Bitterroot irrigation districts the water is “overallocated.” That is—incredibly to a naïve outsider like me—the sum of the water rights allocated to all landowners exceeds the flow of water available in most years, at least later in the summer when snowmelt is decreasing. Part of the reason is that allocations are calculated on the assumption of a fixed water supply, but in fact water supplies vary from year to year with climate, and the assumed fixed water supply is the value for a relatively wet year. The solution is to assign priorities among landowners according to the historical date on which the water right was claimed for that property, and to cut off water deliveries first to the most junior right-owner and then to earlier right-owners as water flows in the ditches decrease. That’s already a recipe for conflict, because the oldest farms with the earliest rights claimed are often downhill, and it’s hard for uphill farmers with lower-ranking rights to see water that they desperately need flowing merrily downhill past their property and yet to refrain from taking the water. But if they did take it, their downhill neighbors could sue them.
A further problem results from land subdivision: originally the land was owned in large blocks whose single owner of course took water from the ditch for his different fields in sequence, and who wouldn’t have been so silly as to try to water all his fields simultaneously and thus run out of water. But as those original 160-acre blocks have become subdivided each into 40 four-acre house lots, there isn’t enough water when each of those 40 house-owners tries to water and keep the house’s garden green without realizing that the other 39 neighbors are irrigating simultaneously. Still another problem is that irrigation rights apply only to so-called “beneficial” use of water benefitting the piece of land holding the right. Leaving water in the river for the fish and for the tourists trying to float down the river on rafts is not considered a “beneficial” right. Sections of the Big Hole River have actually dried up in some recent dry summers. Until 2003, many of those potential conflicts in the Bitterroot Valley were amicably adjudicated for several decades by Vern Woolsey, the 82-year-old water commissioner whom everyone respected, but my Bitterroot friends are terrified at the potential for conflict now that Vern has finally stepped down.
Bitterroot irrigation systems include 28 small privately owned dams constructed across mountain streams, in order to store snowmelt water in the spring and to release it for irrigating fields in the summer. These dams constitute ticking time bombs. They were all built a century ago, to weak designs now considered primitive and dangerous. They have been maintained poorly or not at all. Many are at risk of collapses that would flood houses and property lying below them. Devastating floods resulting from failures of two such dams several decades ago convinced the Forest Service to declare that a dam’s owners, and also any contractor that has ever worked on the dam, bear the liability for damages caused by a dam failure. Owners are responsible for either fixing or removing their dam. While this principle may seem reasonable, three facts often make it financially onerous: most of the present owners bearing the liability get little financial benefit from their dam and no longer care to fix it (e.g., because the land has been subdivided into house lots, and they now use the dam just to water their lawns rather than to earn a living as farmers); the federal and state governments offer money on a cost-sharing basis to fix a dam, but not to remove one; and half of the dams are on lands now designated as wilderness areas, where roads are forbidden and repair machinery must be flown in by expensive helicopter charters.
One example of such a time bomb is Tin Cup Dam, whose collapse would inundate Darby, the largest town in the southern Bitterroot Valley. Leaks and the dam’s poor condition triggered lengthy arguments and lawsuits between the dam’s owners, the Forest Service, and environmental groups about whether and how to repair the dam, climaxing in an emergency when a serious leak was noted in 1998. Unfortunately, the contractor whom the owners hired to drain the dam’s reservoir soon encountered heavy rocks whose removal would require big excavation equipment to be flown in by helicopter. At that point the owners declared that they had run out of money, and both the state of Montana and Ravalli County also decided against spending money on the dam, but the situation remained a potentially life-threatening emergency for Darby. Hence the Forest Service itself hired the helicopters and equipment to work on the dam and billed the owners, who have not paid; the U.S. Department of Justice is now preparing to sue them in order to collect the costs.
The Bitterroot’s other water supply besides snowmelt-fed irrigation consists of wells for domestic water use, tapping into underground aquifers. They, too, face the problem of increasing demand for decreasing water. While mountain snowpack and underground aquifers may seem to be separate, they are in fact coupled: some runoff of used irrigation water may percolate down through the ground to the aquifers, and some aquifer water may originate ultimately from snowmelt. Hence the ongoing decrease in Montana’s snowpack forebodes a decrease in the aquifers as well.
There is no doubt about increasing demand for aquifer water: the Bitterroot’s continuing population explosion means more people drinking more water and flushing more toilets. Roxa French, coordinator for the local Bitter Root Water Forum, advises people building new houses to drill their wells deep, because there are going to be “more straws in the milkshake”—i.e., more wells drilled into the same aquifer and lowering its level. Montana law and county regulations about domestic water are currently weak. The well that one new house-owner drills may lower the water level of a neighbor’s well, but it is difficult for the latter person to collect damages. In order to calculate how much domestic water use an aquifer could support, one would have to map the aquifer and to measure how rapidly water is flowing into it, but—astonishingly—those two elementary steps have not been accomplished for any Bitterroot Valley aquifer. The county itself lacks the resources to monitor its aquifers and does not carry out independent assessments of water availability when it is considering a developer’s application to build a new house. Instead, the county relies on the developer’s assurance that enough well water will be available for the house.
Everything that I have said about water so far concerns water quantity. However, there are also issues of water quality, which rivals western Montana’s scenery as its most valuable natural resource because the rivers and irrigation systems originate from relatively pure snowmelt. Despite that advantage, the Bitterroot River is already on Montana’s list of “impaired streams,” for several reasons. The most important of those reasons is buildup of sediments released by erosion, road construction, forest fires, logging, and falling water levels in ditches and streams due to use for irrigation. Most of the Bitterroot’s watersheds are now already eroded or at risk. A second problem is fertilizer runoff: every farmer growing hay adds at least 200 pounds of fertilizer to each acre of land, but it is unknown how much of that fertilizer ends up in the river. Waste nutrients from septic tanks are yet another increasing hazard to water quality. Finally, as I already explained, toxic minerals draining out of mines are the most serious water quality problem in some other parts of Montana, though not in the Bitterroot.
Air quality also deserves brief mention. It may at first seem shameless for me, as a resident of the American city (Los Angeles) with the worst air quality, to say anything negative about Montana in this regard. In fact, some areas of Montana do suffer seasonally from poor air quality, worst of all in Missoula, whose air (despite improvements since the 1980s) is sometimes as bad as in Los Angeles. Missoula’s air problems, exacerbated by winter temperature inversions and by its location in a valley that traps air, stem from a combination of vehicle emissions throughout the year, wood-burning stoves in the winter, and forest fires and logging in the summer.
Montana’s remaining major sets of environmental problems are the linked ones of introductions of harmful non-native species and losses of valuable native species. These problems especially involve fish, deer and elk, and weeds.
Montana originally supported valuable fisheries based on native Cutthroat Trout (Montana’s state fish), Bull Trout, Arctic Grayling, and Whitefish. All of those species except Whitefish have now declined in Montana from a combination of causes whose relative impact varies among the species: less water in the mountain streams where they spawn and develop, because of water removal for irrigation; warmer temperatures and more sediment in those streams, because of logging; overfishing; competition from, and in some cases hybridization with, introduced Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, and Brown Trout; predation by introduced Northern Pike and Lake Trout; and infection by an introduced parasite causing whirling disease. For example, Northern Pike, which are voracious fish-eaters, have been illegally introduced into some western Montana lakes and rivers by fishermen fond of catching pike, and have virtually eliminated from those lakes and rivers the populations of Bull Trout and Cutthroat on which they prey. Similarly, Flathead Lake’s formerly robust fishery based on several native fish species has been destroyed by introduced Lake Trout.
Whirling disease was accidentally introduced into the U.S from its native Europe in 1958 when a Pennsylvania fish hatchery imported some Danish fish that proved to be infected with the disease. It has now spread throughout most of the western U.S., partly through transport by birds, but especially as a result of people (including government agencies and private fish hatcheries) stocking lakes and rivers with infected fish. Once the parasite gets into a body of water, it is impossible to eradicate. By 1994 whirling disease had reduced the Rainbow Trout population of the Madison River, Montana’s most famous trout stream, by more than 90%.
At least whirling disease is not transmissible to humans; it is merely bad for fishing-based tourism. Another introduced disease, chronic wasting disease (CWD) of deer and elk, is of more concern because it might cause an incurably fatal human illness. CWD is the deer/elk equivalent of prion diseases in other animals, of which the most notorious are Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) of cattle (transmissible to humans), and scrapie of sheep. These infections cause an untreatable degeneration of the nervous system; no human infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has ever recovered. CWD was first detected in western North American deer and elk in the 1970s, possibly (some people suggest) because deer housed for studies at a western university in a pen near scrapie-infected sheep were released into the wild after completion of the studies. (Today, such a release would be considered a criminal act.) Further spread from state to state was accelerated by transfers of exposed deer and elk from one commercial game farm to another. We do not know yet whether CWD can be transmitted from deer or elk to people, as can mad cow disease, but the recent deaths of some elk hunters from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease have raised alarms in some quarters. The state of Wisconsin, concerned that fear of transmission could cripple the state’s one-billion-dollar-per-year deer hunting industry, is in the process of killing 25,000 deer (a desperate solution that sickens everybody involved) in an infected area in hopes of controlling the CWD epidemic there.
While CWD is potentially Montana’s most frightening problem caused by an introduced pest, introduced weeds are already Montana’s most expensive such problem. About 30 noxious weed species, mostly of Eurasian origin, have become established in Montana after arriving accidentally in hay or as wind-blown seeds, or in one case being introduced intentionally as an attractive ornamental plant whose dangers weren’t anticipated. They cause damage in several ways: they are inedible or poorly edible to livestock and wild animals, but they crowd out edible plant species, so they reduce the amount of livestock fodder by up to 90%; some of them are toxic to animals; and they may triple rates of erosion because their roots hold the soil less well than do roots of native grasses.
Economically, the two most important of these weeds are Spotted Knapweed and Leafy Spurge, both now widespread throughout Montana. Spotted Knapweed takes over from native grasses by secreting chemicals that quickly kill them, and by producing vast numbers of seeds. While it can be pulled out by hand from selected small fields, it has now infested 566,000 acres in the Bitterroot Valley alone and 5,000,000 acres in all of Montana, an area far too large for hand-pulling to be feasible. Spotted Knapweed can also be controlled by herbicides, but the cheaper herbicides that kill it also kill many other plant species, and the herbicide specific for Spotted Knapweed is very expensive ($800 per gallon). In addition, it is uncertain whether the breakdown products of those herbicides end up in the Bitterroot River or in the aquifers used for human drinking water, and whether those products themselves have harmful effects. Because Spotted Knapweed has become established on large areas of national forest as well as of pastureland, it reduces the fodder production not only for domestic animals but also for wild herbivores in the forest, so that it may have the effect of driving deer and elk from forest down into pastures by reducing the amount of food available in the forest. Leafy Spurge is at present less widespread than knapweed but much harder to control and impossible to pull out by hand, because it establishes underground roots 20 feet long.
Estimates of the direct economic damage that these and other weeds cause in Montana are over $100,000,000 per year. Their presence also reduces real estate values and farm productivity. Above all, they are a huge pain in the neck for farmers, because they cannot be controlled by any single measure alone but require complex integrated management systems. They force farmers to change many practices simultaneously: pulling out weeds, applying herbicides, changing fertilizer use, releasing insect and fungus enemies of weeds, lighting controlled fires, changing mowing schedules, and altering crop rotations and annual grazing practices. All that because of a few small plants whose dangers were mostly unappreciated at the time, and some of whose seeds arrived unnoticed!
Thus, seemingly pristine Montana actually suffers from serious environmental problems involving toxic wastes, forests, soils, water, climate change, biodiversity losses, and introduced pests. All of these problems translate into economic problems. They provide much of the explanation for why Montana’s economy has been declining in recent decades to the point where what was formerly one of our richest states is now one of the poorest.
Whether or how these problems become resolved will depend on the attitudes and values that Montanans hold. But Montana’s population is becoming increasingly heterogeneous and cannot agree on a vision for their state’s environment and future. Many of my friends commented on the growing polarization of opinion. For instance, banker Emil Erhardt explained to me, “There is too much raucous debate here. The prosperity of the 1950s meant that all of us were poor then, or we felt poor. There were no extremes of wealth; at least, wealth wasn’t visible. Now, we have a two-tiered society with lower-income families struggling to survive at the bottom, and the wealthier newcomers at the top able to acquire enough property that they can isolate themselves. In essence, we are zoning by money, not by land use!”
The polarization that my friends mention is along many axes: rich versus poor, old-timers versus newcomers, those clinging to a traditional lifestyle versus others welcoming change, pro-growth versus anti-growth voices, those for and against governmental planning, and those with and without school-age children. Fueling these disagreements are Montana’s paradoxes that I mentioned near the beginning of this chapter: a state with poor residents but attracting rich newcomers, even while the state’s own children are deserting Montana upon graduating high school.
I initially wondered whether Montana’s environmental problems and polarizing disputes might involve selfish behavior on the part of individuals who advanced their own interests in full knowledge that they were simultaneously damaging the rest of Montana society. This may be true in some cases, such as the proposals of some mining executives to carry out cyanide heap-leach gold extraction despite the abundant evidence of resulting toxicity problems; the transfers of deer and elk between game farms by some farm owners despite the known resulting risk of spreading chronic wasting disease; and the illegal introductions of pike into lakes and rivers by some fishermen for their own fishing pleasure, despite the history of such transfers having destroyed many other fisheries. Even in these cases, though, I haven’t interviewed individuals involved and don’t know whether they could honestly claim that they thought they had been acting safely. Whenever I have actually been able to talk with Montanans, I have found their actions to be consistent with their values, even if those values clash with my own or those of other Montanans. That is, for the most part Montana’s difficulties cannot be simplistically attributed to selfish evil people knowingly and reprehensibly profiting at the expense of neighbors. Instead, they involve clashes between people whose own particular backgrounds and values cause them to favor policies differing from those favored by people with different backgrounds and values. Here are some of the points of view currently competing to shape Montana’s future.
One clash is between “old-timers” and “newcomers”: i.e., people born in Montana, of families resident in the state for many generations, respecting a lifestyle and economy traditionally built on the three pillars of mining, logging, and agriculture, versus recent arrivals or seasonal visitors. All three of those economic pillars are now in steep decline in Montana. All but a few Montana mines are already closed, due to toxic waste problems plus competition from overseas mines with lower costs. Timber sales are now more than 80% below former peak levels, and most mills and timber businesses other than specialty firms (notably, log cabin home builders) have closed because of a combination of factors: increasing public preference for maintaining intact forests, huge costs of forest management and fire suppression, and competition from logging operations in warmer and wetter climates with inherent advantages over logging operations in cold dry Montana. Agriculture, the third pillar, is also dwindling: for instance, of the 400 dairies operating in the Bitterroot Valley in 1964, only nine still exist. The reasons behind Montana agriculture’s decline are more complex than those behind the decline in mining and logging, though in the background looms the fundamental competitive disadvantage of Montana’s cold dry climate for growing crops and cows as well as trees.
Montana farmers today who continue to farm into their old age do it in part because they love the lifestyle and take great pride in it. As Tim Huls told me, “It’s a wonderful lifestyle to get up before dawn and see the sunrise, to watch hawks fly overhead, and to see deer jump through your hay field to avoid your haying equipment.” Jack Hirschy, a rancher whom I met in 1950 when he was 29 years old, is still working on his ranch today at the age of 83, while his father Fred rode a horse on his 91st birthday. But “ranching and farming are hazardous hard work,” in the words of Jack’s rancher sister Jill. Jack suffered internal injuries and broken ribs from a tractor accident at age 77, while Fred was almost killed by a falling tree at age 58. Tim Huls added to his proud comment about the wonderful lifestyle, “Occasionally I get up at 3 A.M. and work until 10 P.M. This isn’t a 9 to 5 job. But none of our children will sign up for being a farmer if it is 3 A.M. to 10 P.M. every day.”
That remark by Tim illustrates one reason for the rise and fall of Montana farming: the lifestyle was highly valued by older generations, but many farmers’ children today have different values. They want jobs that involve sitting indoors in front of computer screens rather than heaving hay bales, and taking off evenings and weekends rather than having to milk cows and harvest hay that don’t take evenings and weekends off. They don’t want a life forcing them to do literally back-breaking physical work into their 80s, as all three surviving Hirschy brothers and sisters are still doing.
Steve Powell explained to me, “People used to expect no more of a farm than to produce enough to feed themselves; today, they want more out of life than just getting fed; they want to earn enough to send their kids to college.” When John Cook was growing up on a farm with his parents, “At dinnertime, my mother was satisfied to go to the orchard and gather asparagus, and as a boy I was satisfied for fun to go hunting and fishing. Now, kids expect fast food and HBO; if their parents don’t provide that, they feel deprived compared to their peers. In my day a young adult expected to be poor for the next 20 years, and only thereafter, if you were lucky, might you hope to end up more comfortably. Now, young adults expect to be comfortable early; a kid’s first questions about a job are ‘What are the pay, the hours, and the vacations?”’ Every Montana farmer whom I know, and who loves being a farmer, is either very concerned whether any of his/her children will want to carry on the family farm, or already knows that none of them will.
Economic considerations now make it difficult for farmers to earn a living at farming, because farm costs have been rising much faster than farm income. The price that a farmer receives for milk and beef today is virtually the same as 20 years ago, but costs of fuel, farm machinery, fertilizers, and other farm necessities are higher. Rick Laible gave me an example: “Fifty years ago, a farmer who wanted to buy a new truck paid for it by selling two cows. Nowadays, a new truck costs around $15,000, but a cow still sells for only $600, so the farmer would have to sell 25 cows to pay for the truck.” That’s the logic underlying the following joke that I was told by a Montana farmer. Question: “What would you do if you were given a million dollars?” Answer: “I love farming, and I would stay here on my money-losing farm until I had used up the million dollars!”
Those shrinking profit margins, and increasing competition, have made the Bitterroot Valley’s hundreds of formerly self-supporting small farms uneconomic. First, the farmers found that they needed additional income from outside jobs to survive, and then they had to give up the farm because it required too much work on evenings and weekends after the outside job. For instance, 60 years ago Kathy Vaughn’s grandparents supported themselves on a 40-acre farm, and so Kathy and Pat Vaughn bought their own 40-acre farm in 1977. With six cows, six sheep, a few pigs, hay, Kathy working as a schoolteacher, and Pat as an irrigation system builder, they fed and raised three children on the farm, but it provided no security or retirement income. After eight years, they sold the farm, moved into town, and all of their children have now left Montana.
Throughout the U.S., small farms are being squeezed out by large farms, the only ones able to survive on shrinking profit margins by economies of scale. But in southwestern Montana it is now impossible for small farmers to become large farmers by buying more land, for reasons succinctly explained by Allen Bjergo: “Agriculture in the U.S. is shifting to areas like Iowa and Nebraska, where no one would live for the fun of it because it isn’t beautiful as in Montana! Here in Montana, people do want to live for the fun of it, and so they are willing to pay much more for land than agriculture on the land would support. The Bitterroot is becoming a horse valley. Horses are economic because, whereas prices for agricultural products depend on the value of the food itself and are not unlimited, many people are willing to spend anything for horses that yield no economic benefit.”
Land prices in the Bitterroot are now 10 or 20 times higher than a few decades ago. At those prices, carrying costs for a mortgage are far higher than could be paid by use of the land as a farm. That’s the immediate reason why small farmers in the Bitterroot can’t survive by expanding, and why the farms eventually become sold for non-farm use. If old farmers are still living on their farm when they die, their heirs are forced to sell the land to a developer for much more than it would fetch by sale to another farmer, in order to pay the estate taxes on the great increase in land value during the deceased farmer’s lifetime. More often, the farm is sold by the old farmers themselves. Much as they cringe at seeing the land that they have farmed and loved for 60 years subdivided into 5-acre lots of suburban sprawl, the rise in land prices lets them sell even a small formerly self-supporting farm to a developer for a million dollars. They have no other choice to obtain the money necessary to support themselves after retirement, because they have not been able to save money as farmers, and because their children don’t want to continue farming anyway. In Rick Laible’s words, “For a farmer, his land is his only pension fund.”
What accounts for the enormous jump in land prices? Basically, it’s because the Bitterroot’s gorgeous environment attracts wealthy newcomers. The people who buy out old farmers are either those new arrivals themselves, or else land speculators who will subdivide the farm into lots to sell to newcomers or to wealthy people already living in the valley. Almost all of the valley’s recent 4%-per-year population growth represents newcomers moving in from outside the valley, not an excess of births over deaths within the valley. Seasonal recreational tourism is also on the increase, thanks to out-of-staters (like Stan Falkow, Lucy Tompkins, and my sons) visiting to fly-fish, golf, or hunt. As a recent economic analysis commissioned by Ravalli County explains it, “There should be no mystery as to why so many residents are coming to the Bitterroot Valley. Simply put, it is a very attractive place to live with its mountains, forests, streams, wildlife, views and vistas, and relatively mild climate.”
The largest group of immigrants consists of “half-retirees” or early retirees in the age bracket 45-59, supporting themselves by real estate equity from their out-of-state homes that they sold, and often also by income that they continue to earn from their out-of-state businesses or Internet businesses. That is, their sources of support are immune to the economic problems associated with Montana’s environment. For example, a Californian who sells a tiny house in California for $500,000 can use that money in Montana to buy five acres of land with a large house and horses, go fishing, and support herself in her early retirement with savings and with what remains of her cashed-out California house equity. Hence nearly half of the recent immigrants to the Bitterroot have been Californians. Because they are buying Bitterroot land for its beauty and not for the value of the cows or apples that it could produce, the price that they are willing to offer for Bitterroot land bears no relation to what the land would be worth if used for agriculture.
But that huge jump in house prices has created a housing problem for Bitterroot Valley residents who have to support themselves by working. Many end up unable to afford houses, having to live in mobile homes or recreational vehicles or with their parents, and having to hold two or three jobs simultaneously to support even that spartan lifestyle.
Naturally, these cruel economic facts create antagonism between the old-time residents and the new arrivals from out-of-state, especially rich out-of-staters who maintain a second, third, or even fourth home in Montana (in addition to their homes in San Francisco, Palm Springs, and Florida), and who visit for just short periods each year in order to fish, hunt, golf, or ski. The old-timers complain about the noisy private jet planes flying rich visitors in and out of Hamilton Airport within a single day from their home in San Francisco, just to spend a few hours playing golf at their fourth home on the Stock Farm. Old-timers resent outsiders buying up large former farms that local residents would also like to buy but can no longer afford, and on which the locals could formerly get permission to hunt or fish, but now the new landowners want to hunt or fish there exclusively with their rich friends and keep out the locals. Misunderstandings arise from the clash of values and expectations: for instance, newcomers want elk to come down from the mountains to ranch areas, because they look pretty or in order to hunt them, but old-timers don’t want elk to come down and eat their hay.
Rich out-of-state homeowners are careful to stay in Montana for less than 180 days per year, in order to avoid having to pay Montana income tax and thereby to contribute to the cost of local government and schools. One local told me, “Those outsiders have different priorities from us here: what they want is privacy and expensive isolation, and they don’t want to be involved locally except when they take their out-of-state friends to the local bar to show their friends the rural lifestyle and the quaint local people. They like wildlife, fishing, hunting, and the scenery, but they’re not part of the local community.” Or, as Emil Erhardt said, “Their attitude is, ‘I came here to ride my horse, enjoy the mountains, and go fishing: don’t bother me with issues I moved here to get away from.’ ”
But there’s another side to the rich out-of-staters. Emil Erhardt added, “The Stock Farm provides employment with high-paying jobs, it pays a high fraction of the property taxes for the whole Bitterroot Valley, it pays for its own security staff, and it doesn’t make many demands on the community or on local government services. Our sheriff doesn’t get called to the Stock Farm to break up bar fights, and Stock Farm owners don’t send their children to the schools here.” John Cook acknowledged, “The plus side of those rich owners is that if Charles Schwab hadn’t bought up all that land, it wouldn’t still be providing wildlife habitat and green open space, because that land would otherwise have been subdivided by some developer.”
Because the rich out-of-staters were attracted to Montana by its beautiful environment, some of them take good care of their property and become leaders in defending the environment and instituting land planning. For example, my summer home for the last seven years has been a rented house situated on the Bitterroot River south of Hamilton, and belonging to a private entity called the Teller Wildlife Refuge. Otto Teller was a rich Californian who liked to come to Montana to fish for trout. One day, he was infuriated to encounter large construction machinery dumping dirt into one of his favorite fishing holes on the Gallatin River. He became further enraged when he saw how massive clear-cutting carried out by logging companies in the 1950s was devastating his beloved trout streams and damaging their water quality. In 1984 Otto began buying up prime riverside land along the Bitterroot River and incorporated it into a private wildlife refugee, which he nevertheless let local people continue to visit in order to hunt and fish. He ultimately donated conservation easements on his land to a non-profit organization called the Montana Land Reliance, in order to ensure that the land would be managed in perpetuity so as to preserve its environmental qualities. Had Otto Teller, that wealthy Californian, not bought that 1,600 acres of land, it would have been subdivided for small house lots.
The influx of newcomers, the resulting rise in land prices and property taxes, the poverty of Montana old-timer residents, and their conservative attitude towards government and taxes (see below) all contribute to the plight of Montana schools, which are funded largely by property taxes. Because Ravalli County has so little industrial or commercial property, the main source of property taxes there is residential property taxes, and those have been rising with the increase in land values. To old-timers and less affluent newcomers already on a tight budget, every increase in property taxes is a big deal. Not surprisingly, they often react by voting against proposed school bonds and supplemental local property tax levies for their schools.
As a result, while public schools account for two-thirds of Ravalli County local government spending, that spending as a percentage of personal income stands last among 24 rural western U.S. counties comparable to Ravalli County, and personal income itself is low in Ravalli County. Even by the low school-funding standards of the state of Montana, Ravalli County school funding stands out as low. Most Ravalli County school districts keep their spending down to the absolute minimum required by Montana state law. The average salaries of Montana schoolteachers rank among the lowest in the U.S., and especially in Ravalli County those low salaries plus soaring land prices make it hard for teachers to afford housing.
Montana-born children are leaving the state because many of them aspire to non-Montana lifestyles, and because those who do aspire to Montana lifestyles can’t find jobs within the state. For instance, in the years since Steve Powell graduated from Hamilton High School, 70% of his classmates have left the Bitterroot Valley. Without exception, all of my friends who chose to live in Montana discussed, as a painful subject, whether their children had remained or would come back. All eight of Allen and Jackie Bjergo’s children, and six of Jill and John Eliel’s eight children, are now living outside Montana.
To quote Emil Erhardt again, “We in the Bitterroot Valley export children. Outside influences, like TV, have now made our children aware of what’s available outside the valley, and what’s unavailable inside it. People bring their children here because of the outdoors, and because it’s a great place to bring up kids, but then their children don’t want the outdoors.” I recall my own sons, who love coming to Montana to fish for two weeks in the summer but are accustomed to the urban life of Los Angeles for the rest of the year, expressing shock as they came out of a Hamilton fast-food restaurant and realized how few urban recreational opportunities were available to the local teenagers who had just waited on them. Hamilton has the grand total of two movie theatres, and the nearest mall is 50 miles away in Missoula. A similar shock grows on many of those Hamilton teenagers themselves, when they travel outside Montana and realize what they are missing back at home.
Like rural western Americans in general, Montanans tend to be conservative, and suspicious of governmental regulation. That attitude arose historically because early settlers were living at low population density on a frontier far from government centers, had to be self-sufficient, and couldn’t look to government to solve their problems. Montanans especially bristle at the geographically and psychologically remote federal government in Washington, D.C., telling them what to do. (But they don’t bristle at the federal government’s money, of which Montana receives and accepts about a dollar-and-a-half for every dollar sent from Montana to Washington.) In the view of Montanans, the American urban majority that runs the federal government has no comprehension of conditions in Montana. In the view of federal government managers, Montana’s environment is a treasure belonging to all Americans and is not there just for the private benefit of Montanans.
Even by Montana standards, the Bitterroot Valley is especially conservative and anti-government. That may be due to many early Bitterroot settlers having come from Confederate states, and to a further influx of bitter right-wing conservatives from Los Angeles after that city’s race riots. As Chris Miller said, “Liberals and Democrats living here weep as they read the results after each election, because the outcomes are so conservative.” Extreme proponents of right-wing conservativism in the Bitterroot are members of the so-called militias, groups of landowners who hoard weapons, refuse to pay taxes, keep all others off their property, and are variously tolerated or else regarded as paranoid by other valley residents.
One consequence of those political attitudes in the Bitterroot is opposition to governmental zoning or planning, and a feeling that landowners should enjoy the right to do whatever they want with their private property. Ravalli County has neither a county building code nor county-wide zoning. Outside of two towns plus voluntary zoning districts formed by local voters in some rural areas outside towns, there aren’t even any restrictions on the use to which land can be put. For instance, one evening when I was visiting the Bitterroot with my teenaged son Joshua, he read in the newspaper that a movie he had wanted to see was playing in one of Hamilton’s two movie theatres. I asked for directions to that theatre, drove him there, and discovered to my astonishment that it had been built recently in an area otherwise consisting entirely of farmland, except for an adjacent large biotechnology laboratory. There were no zoning regulations about that changed use of farmland. In contrast, in many other parts of the U.S. there is sufficient public concern about loss of farmland that zoning regulations restrict or prohibit its conversion to commercial property, and voters would be especially horrified at the prospect of a theatre with lots of traffic next to a potentially sensitive biotechnology facility.
Montanans are beginning to realize that two of their most cherished attitudes are in direct opposition: their pro-individual-rights anti-government-regulation attitude, and their pride in their quality of life. That phrase “quality of life” has come up in virtually every conversation that I have had with Montanans about their future. The phrase refers to Montanans’ being able to enjoy, every day of their lives, that beautiful environment which out-of-state tourists like me consider it a privilege to be able to visit for a week or two each year. The phrase also refers to Montanans’ pride in their traditional lifestyle as a rural, low-density, egalitarian population descended from old-timer settlers. Emil Erhardt told me, “In the Bitterroot people want to maintain the essence of a rural quiet little community in which everyone is in the same condition, poor and proud of it.” Or, as Stan Falkow said, “Formerly, when you drove down the road in the Bitterroot, you waved at any car that passed, because you knew everyone.”
Unfortunately, by permitting unrestricted land use and thereby making possible an influx of new residents, Montanans’ long-standing and continuing opposition to government regulation is responsible for degradation of the beautiful natural environment and quality of life that they cherish. This was best explained to me by Steve Powell: “I tell my real estate agent and developer friends, ‘You have to protect the beauty of the landscape, the wildlife, and the agricultural land.’ Those are the things that create property value. The longer we wait to do planning, the less landscape beauty there will be. Undeveloped land is valuable to the community as a whole: it’s an important part of that ‘quality of life’ that attracts people here. With increasing growth pressure, the same people who used to be anti-government are now concerned about growth. They say that their favorite recreation area is becoming crowded, and they now admit that there have to be rules.” When Steve was a Ravalli County commissioner in 1993, he sponsored public meetings just to start discussion of land use planning and to stimulate the public to think about it. Tough-looking members of the militias came to those meetings to disrupt them, openly carrying holsters with guns in order to intimidate other people. Steve lost his subsequent bid for reelection.
It’s still unclear how the clash between this resistance to government planning and that need for government planning will be resolved. To quote Steve Powell again, “People are trying to preserve the Bitterroot as a rural community, but they can’t figure out how to preserve it in a way that would let them survive economically.” Land Lindbergh and Hank Goetz made essentially the same point: “The fundamental problem here is how we hang on to these attractions that brought us to Montana, while still dealing with the change that can’t be avoided.”
To conclude this chapter about Montana, largely related in my words, I’ll now let four of my Montanan friends relate in their own words how they came to be Montanans, and their concerns for Montana’s future. Rick Laible is a newcomer, now a state senator; Chip Pigman, an old-timer and a land developer; Tim Huls, an old-timer and a dairy farmer; and John Cook, a newcomer and a fishing guide.
Here is Rick Laible’s story: “I was born and brought up in the area around Berkeley, California, where I have a business manufacturing wooden store fixtures. My wife Frankie and I were both working hard. One day, Frankie looked at me and said, ‘You’re working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.’ We decided to semi-retire, drove 4,600 miles around the West to find a place to settle, bought our first house in a remote part of the Bitterroots in 1993, and moved to a ranch that we bought near the town of Victor in 1994. My wife raises Egyptian Arabian horses on the ranch, and I go back to California once a month for my business that I still own there. We have five children. Our oldest son always wanted to move to Montana, and he manages our ranch. The other four of our kids don’t understand the Montana quality of life, don’t understand that Montanans are nicer people, and don’t understand why their parents moved here.
“Nowadays, after each of my monthly four-day visits to California, I want to get out of there: I feel, ‘They’re like rats in a cage!’ Frankie goes back to California only twice a year to see her grandchildren, and that’s enough of California for her. As an example of what I don’t like about California, I was recently back there for a meeting, and I had a little free time, so I took a walk on the town street. I noticed that people coming in the other direction lowered their eyes and avoided eye contact with me. When I say ‘good morning’ to people that I don’t know in California, they’re taken aback. Here, in the Bitterroot, it’s the rule that when you pass someone that you don’t know, you make eye contact.
“As for how I got into politics, I’ve always had many political opinions. The state assembly legislator for my district here in the Bitterroots decided not to run and suggested to me that I run instead. He tried to convince me, and so did Frankie. Why did I decide to run? It was ‘to put something back’—I felt that life has been good to me, and I wanted to make life better for local people.
“The legislative issue in which I’m particularly interested is forest management, because my district is forested and many of my constituents are woodworkers. The town of Darby, which lies in my district, used to be a rich lumber town, and forest management would create jobs for the valley. Originally, there were about seven lumber mills in the valley, but now there are none, so the valley has lost those jobs and infrastructure. The decisions about forest management here are currently made by environmental groups and the federal government, with the county and state being excluded. I’m working on forest management legislation that would involve collaboration between the three lead parties within the state: federal, state, and county agencies.
“Several decades ago Montana was among the top 10 U.S. states in its per-capita income; now, it stands 49 out of 50, because of the decline of the extraction industries (logging, coal, mines, oil, and gas). Those lost jobs were high-paying union jobs. Of course, we should not go back to over-extraction, of which there was some in the old days. Here in the Bitterroot, both a husband and wife have to work, and often they each have to hold two jobs, in order to make ends meet, yet here we are surrounded by this over-fueled forest. Everybody here, environmentalists or not, agrees that we need some fuel reduction in our forests. Forest restoration would eliminate overfueling of the forests, especially of the low small trees. Now, that overfueling is eliminated just by burning it. The federal government’s National Fire Plan would do it by mechanical extraction of the logs, the purpose being to reduce the biomass of fuel. Most of our American timber comes from Canada! Yet the original mandate of our national forests was to provide a steady stream of timber, and to provide watershed protection. It used to be that 25% of the revenue from national forests went to schools, but that national forest revenue has decreased greatly recently. More logging would mean more money for our schools.
“At present, there is no growth policy for all of Ravalli County! The valley’s population has grown by 40% in the last decade, and it may grow by 40% in the next decade: where will that next 40% go? Can we lock the door to more people moving in? Do we have the right to lock the door? Should a farmer be forbidden to subdivide and develop his property, and should he be sentenced to a life of farming? A farmer’s money for his retirement is all in his land. If the farmer is forbidden to sell his land for development or to build a house, what are you doing to him?
“As for the long-term effects of growth, there will be cycles here in the future, as there have been in the past, and in one of the cycles the newcomers will go back home. Montana will never overdevelop, but Ravalli County will continue to develop. There is a huge amount of publicly owned land here in the county. The price of land here will rise until it gets too high, at which point prospective buyers will start a land boom somewhere else with cheaper land. Ultimately, all of the farmland in the valley will be developed.”
Now, this is Chip Pigman’s story: “My mother’s grandfather moved here from Oklahoma around 1925 and had an apple orchard. My mother grew up here on a dairy and sheep farm, and she now owns a real estate agency in town. My father moved here as a child, was in mining and sugarbeets, and held a second job in construction; that’s how I got into construction. I was born and went to school here, and I got my B.A. in accounting at the University of Montana nearby in Missoula.
“For three years I moved to Denver, but I disliked city living and I was determined to move back here, in part because the Bitterroot is a great place to raise children. My bicycle was stolen within my first two weeks in Denver. I didn’t like the city’s traffic and large groups of people. My needs are satisfied here. I was raised without ‘culture’ and I don’t need it. I waited just until my stock in the Denver company that employed me was vested, and then I moved back here. That meant leaving a Denver job paying $35,000 a year plus fringe benefits, and coming back here to earn $17,000 per year without any benefits. I was willing to give up the secure Denver job in order to be able to live in the valley, where I can hike. My wife had never experienced that insecurity, but I had always lived with that insecurity in the Bitterroot. Here in the Bitterroot, you have to be a two-income household in order to survive, and my parents always had to hold multiple odd jobs. I was prepared if necessary to take a nighttime job stocking groceries to earn money for my family. After we returned here, it took five years before I again had an income at my Denver level, and it was another year or two after that until I had health insurance.
“My business is mainly house construction, plus development of the less expensive parcels of raw land—I can’t afford to buy and develop high-end parcels. Originally, the lots that I developed used to be ranches, but most of them are no longer operating ranches by the time that I acquire them; they have already been sold, resold, and possibly subdivided several times since they were last farmed. They’re already out of production, and they carry knapweed rather than pasture.
“An exception is my current Hamilton Heights project, a 40-acre former ranch that I acquired and that I’m now trying to subdivide for the first time. I submitted to the county a detailed development plan requiring three sets of approvals, of which I succeeded in getting the first two. But the third and last step was a public hearing, at which 80 people living nearby appeared and protested on the grounds that subdivision would mean a loss of agricultural land. Yes, the lot has good soil and used to be good agricultural land, but it was no longer in agricultural production when I bought it. I paid $225,000 for those 40 acres; it would be impossible to support that high cost by agriculture. But public opinion doesn’t look at the economics. Instead, neighbors say, ‘We like to see open space of farmland or forest around us.’ But how is one to maintain that open space if the lot’s seller is someone in their sixties who needs the money to retire? If the neighbors had wanted to preserve that lot as open land, they should have bought it themselves. They could have bought it, but they didn’t. They want still to control it, even though they don’t own it.
“I was turned down at that public hearing because the county planners didn’t want to oppose 80 voters shortly before an election. I hadn’t negotiated with the neighbors before submitting my plan, because I am bull-headed, I want to do what I think I have the right to do, and I don’t like being told what to do. Also, people don’t realize that, on a small project like this one, negotiations are very expensive of my time and money. On a similar project next time, I would talk first with the neighbors, but I would also bring 50 of my own workers to the hearing, so that the county commissioners would see that there’s also public demand in favor of the project. I’ve been stuck with the carrying cost of the land during this fight. The neighbors would like the land to sit with nothing done to it!
“People talk about there being too much development here and the valley eventually becoming overpopulated, and they try to blame me. My answer is: there’s demand for my product, the demand isn’t something that I’m creating. Every year there are more buildings and traffic in the valley. But I like to hike, and when you hike or fly over the valley, you see lots of open space here. The media say that there was 44% growth in the valley in the last 10 years, but that just meant a population increase from 25,000 to still only 35,000 people. Young people are leaving the valley. I have 30 employees, to whom my company gives employment and provides a pension plan, health insurance, paid vacation, and a profit-sharing plan. No competitor offers that package, so I have only low turnover of my workforce. I’m frequently seen by environmentalists as a cause of the problems in the valley, but I can’t create demand; someone else will put up the buildings if I don’t.
“I intend to stay here in the valley for the rest of my life. I belong to this community, and I support many community projects: for example, I support the local baseball, swim, and football teams. Because I’m from here and I want to stay here, I don’t have a get-rich-and-get-out mentality. I expect still to be here in 20 years, driving by my old projects. I don’t want to look out then and have to admit to myself, ‘That was a bad project that I did!’ ”
Tim Huls is a dairy farmer from an old-timer family: “My great-grandparents were the first ones in our family to come here in 1912. They bought forty acres when land was still very cheap, and they kept a dozen dairy cows which they milked by hand for two hours every morning and then again for two hours every evening. My grandparents bought 110 more acres for just pennies per acre, sold cream from their cows’ milk to make cheese, and raised apples and hay. However, it was a struggle. There were difficult times, and they hung on by their fingernails, while some other farmers weren’t able to. My father considered going to college but decided instead to stay on the farm. He was the innovative visionary who made the crucial business decision to commit himself to specialized dairy farming and to build a 150-cow milking barn, as a way to increase the value obtained from the land.
“My brothers and I bought the farm from our parents. They didn’t give it to us. Instead, they sold it to us, because they wanted us to decide who really wanted badly enough to do farming to be willing to pay for the farm. Each brother and spouse own their own land and lease it to our family corporation. Most of the work of running the farm is done by us brothers, our wives, and our children; we have only a small number of non-family employees. There are very few family farm corporations like ours. One thing that lets us succeed is that we all share a common religious faith; most of us go to the same community church in Corvallis. Sure, we do have family conflicts. But we can have a good fight and still be best friends at night; our parents fought too, but they always talked about it before sundown. We have figured out which hills are worth dying on, and which are not.
“Somehow, that family spirit got passed on to my two sons. The two of them learned cooperation as children: when the youngest was still only seven years old, they began shifting 40-foot sections of aluminum sprinkler pipe, 16 sections in a line, one boy at each end of a 40-foot section. After leaving home, they became roommates, and now they are best friends and neighbors. Other families try to raise their children to maintain family ties as did our children, but the children of those other families didn’t stay together, even though they seemed to be doing the same things that our family did.
“Farm economics are tough, because the highest value to which land can be put here in the Bitterroot is for homes and development. Farmers in our area face the decision: should we continue farming, or should we sell our land for home sites and retire? There’s no legal crop that would let us compete with the house development value of our land, so we can’t afford to buy more land. Instead, what determines our survival is whether we can be as efficient as possible on the 760 acres that we already own or lease. Our costs, like the price of pickup trucks, have increased, but we still get the same money today for 100 pounds of milk as we did 20 years ago. How can we make a profit on a tighter profit margin? We have to adopt new technology, which takes capital, and we have to continue to educate ourselves on applying the technology to our circumstances. We have to be willing to abandon old ways.
“For instance, this year we spent substantial capital to build a new computerized 200-cow dairy parlor. It will have automatic manure collection, and a moving fence to push cows towards an automatic milking machine through which they’ll be moved automatically. Each cow is recognized by computer, is milked with a computer at her stall, the conductivity of her milk is measured at once to detect an infection early, each milking is weighed to track her health and nutritional needs, and the computer’s sorting criteria let us group cows together into different pens. Our farm is now serving as a model for the whole state of Montana. Other farmers are watching us to see if this will work.
“We have some doubts ourselves whether it will work, because of two risks beyond our control. But if we’re to have any hope of staying in agriculture, we had to do this modernization, or else we would have no alternative to becoming developers: here one either has to grow cows or to grow houses on one’s land. One of the two risks beyond our control is price fluctuations in the farm machinery and services that we have to buy, and in the price we get for our milk. Dairy farmers have no control over the price of milk. Our milk is perishable; once the cow is milked, we have only two days to get that milk off the ranch to market, so we have no bargaining power. We sell the milk, and buyers tell us what price it will fetch.
“The other risk beyond our control is the public’s environmental concerns, which include our treatment of animals, their wastes, and associated odor. We try to control these impacts to the best of our ability, but our efforts will probably not please everyone. The newcomers to the Bitterroot come for the view. At first, they like to see the cows and hayfields in the distance, but sometimes they don’t comprehend all that comes with agricultural operations, especially dairies. In other areas where dairies and development coexist, the objections to dairies are associated with their odor, the sound of running equipment too late at night, truck traffic on ‘our quiet rural road,’ and more. We even had a complaint once when a neighbor got cow manure on her white jogging shoes. One of our concerns is that people unsympathetic with animal agriculture could propose an initiative to restrict or ban dairy farming in our area. For example, two years ago an initiative banning hunting on game farms put a Bitterroot elk ranch out of business. We never thought that that would happen, and we can’t help but feel that there is a possibility that, if we are not vigilant, it could happen to us. In a society that espouses tolerance, it’s amazing how intolerant some folks are to animal agriculture and what comes with producing food.”
The last of these four life stories that I’ll quote is that of John Cook, the fishing guide who with infinite patience introduced my then-10-year-old sons to fly-fishing and has been taking them out on the Bitterroot River for the last seven summers: “I grew up on an apple orchard in Washington’s Wenatchee Valley. At the end of high school I had a wild hippie phase and set off for India on a motorcycle. I only got as far as the U.S. East Coast, but by then I had traveled all over the U.S. After I met my wife Pat, we moved to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and then to Kodiak Island in Alaska, where I worked for 16 years as a wildlife and fisheries ranger. We next moved down to Portland, so that Pat could take care of her sick grandmother and grandfather. The grandmother died soon, and then one week after the grandfather’s death we got out of Portland and came to Montana.
“I had first visited Montana in the 1970s, when Pat’s father was a wilderness outfitter working in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness just over the Montana border. Pat and I used to work for him part-time, with Pat doing the cooking and me doing the guiding. Already then, Pat loved the Bitterroot River and wanted to live on it, but land there already cost a thousand dollars per acre, much too expensive to support the cost of a mortgage by farming. Then in 1994, when we were looking to leave Portland, the opportunity arose to buy a 10-acre farm near the Bitterroot River at an affordable price. The farmhouse needed some attention, so we spent a few years fixing it up, and I took out a license as an outfitter and fishing guide.
“There are only two places in the world to which I feel a deep spiritual bond: one of them is the Oregon coast, and the other is here in the Bitterroot Valley. When we bought this farm, we thought of it as ‘dying property’: that is, a house where we wanted to live for the rest of our lives. Right here, on our property, we have great horned owls, pheasants, quail, wood ducks, and a pasture big enough for our two horses.
“People may be born into a time in which they feel that they can live, and they may not want to live in another time. We love this valley as it was 30 years ago. Since then, it has been filling up with people. I wouldn’t want to be living here if the valley became a strip mall, with a million people living on the valley floor between Missoula and Darby. A view of open space is important to me. The land across the road from my house is an old farm two miles long and half a mile wide, consisting entirely of pastureland, with a couple of barns as the only buildings. It’s owned by an out-of-state rock singer and actor called Huey Lewis, who comes here for just a month or so each year to hunt and fish, and for the rest of the year has a caretaker who runs cows, grows hay, and leases some of the land to farmers. If Huey Lewis’s land across the street got subdivided into house lots, I couldn’t stand the sight facing me every day, and I would move.
“I often think about how I would want to die. My own father recently died a slow death of lung disease. He lost control over his own life, and his last year was painful. I don’t want to die that way. It may seem cold-blooded, but here is my fantasy of how I would die if I had my choice. In my fantasy, Pat would die before me. That’s because, when we got married, I promised to love, honor, and take care of her, and if she died first, I would know that I had fulfilled my promise. Also, I have no life insurance to support her, so it would be hard if she outlived me. After Pat died—my fantasy continues—I would turn over the deed of the house to my son Cody, then I would go trout-fishing every day as long as I was physically in condition to do it. When I became no longer capable of fishing, I would get hold of a large supply of morphine and go off a long way into the woods. I would pick some remote place where nobody would ever find my body, and from which I could enjoy an especially beautiful view. I’d lie down facing that view and—take my morphine. That would be the best way to die: dying in the way that I chose, with the last sight I see being a view of Montana as I want to remember it.”
In short, the life stories of these four Montanans, and my own comments preceding them, illustrate that Montanans differ among themselves in their values and goals. They want more or less population growth, more or less government regulation, more or less development and subdivision of agricultural land, more or less retention of agricultural uses of land, more or less mining, and more or less outdoor-based tourism. Some of these goals are obviously incompatible with others of them.
We have previously seen in this chapter how Montana is experiencing many environmental problems that translate into economic problems. Application of these different values and goals that we have just seen illustrated would result in different approaches to these environmental problems, presumably associated with different probabilities of succeeding or failing at solving them. At present, there is honest and wide difference of opinion about the best approaches. We don’t know which approaches the citizens of Montana will ultimately choose, and we don’t know whether Montana’s environmental and economic problems will get better or worse.
It may initially have seemed absurd to select Montana as the subject of this first chapter of a book on societal collapses. Neither Montana in particular, nor the U.S. in general, is in imminent danger of collapse. But: please reflect that half of the income of Montana residents doesn’t come from their work within Montana, but instead consists of money flowing into Montana from other U.S. states: federal government transfer payments (such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and poverty programs) and private out-of-state funds (out-of-state pensions, earnings on real estate equity, and business income). That is, Montana’s own economy already falls far short of supporting the Montana lifestyle, which is instead supported by and dependent on the rest of the U.S. If Montana were an isolated island, as Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean was in Polynesian times before European arrival, its present First World economy would already have collapsed, nor could it have developed that economy in the first place.
Then reflect that Montana’s environmental problems that we have been discussing, although serious, are still much less severe than those in most of the rest of the U.S., almost all of which has much denser human populations and heavier human impacts, and much of which is environmentally more fragile than Montana. The U.S. in turn depends for essential resources on, and is economically, politically, and militarily involved with, other parts of the world, some of which have even more severe environmental problems and are in much steeper decline than is the U.S.
In the remainder of this book we shall be considering environmental problems, similar to Montana’s, in various past and modern societies. For the past societies that I shall discuss, half of which lack writing, we know far less about individual people’s values and goals than we do for Montana. For the modern societies, information about values and goals is available, but I myself have more experience of them in Montana than elsewhere in the modern world. Hence as you read this book, and as you consider environmental problems posed mostly in impersonal terms, please think of the problems of those other societies as viewed by individual people like Stan Falkow, Rick Laible, Chip Pigman, Tim Huls, John Cook, and the Hirschy brothers and sisters. When we discuss Easter Island’s apparently homogeneous society in the next chapter, imagine an Easter Island chief, farmer, stone carver, and porpoise fisherman each relating his or her particular life story, values, and goals, just as my Montana friends did for me.