Column: Time stands still in southeastern Montana – Missoulian, May 16, 2013

May 16, 2013

Categories: Agriculture, Clean Water, Coal, Editorial, Member news

By Greg Tollefson

It was 5 a.m. on the last Friday in April. After a steep, bone-jarring ride up a ranch road to the crest of a ridge some 800 feet above the floor of the Tongue River Valley, Homer and I stepped out of the pickup. We stood near an abandoned communication facility where the skeleton of a steel tower had long since succumbed to the wind leaving a mangled hunk of metal, bent nearly in two. Dawn filtered in from the east where the dark shapes of a tangled sprawling web of pine-studded coulees and buttes stretched off toward the sliver of first light. Stars, though growing fainter, studded the sky. A gentle breeze was redolent with aromas of sage, ponderosa pine and dry grass.

Looking west, shadowy broken country shambled on across the Tongue River Valley across the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian reservations toward the gradually ascending shoulders of the Pryor Mountains, hinting at the peaks of the Abasarokas and Beartooths beyond. Far to the south, even in the darkness, the still snow-clad peaks of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming glowed in the reflected light of the stars.

From where we stood, not a single artificial light was visible in an expanse that covers hundreds of square miles.

Yes, we knew that out of sight in the valley below, lights were on in ranch yards and kitchen windows as the day began for the people who live and work down there. And we knew that behind some of those distant ridges, there was plenty of artificial light and noise, too, from draglines, railroad cars, and heavy trucks that rumbled along scraping up and moving coal on its way to be burned somewhere beyond the distant horizon.

But for the moment, Homer and I surveyed a hunk of wild country that looked as it might have looked to a Sioux or Cheyenne warrior standing in the same place long ago, wondering where the soldiers of Custer, Crook and Terry would be moving in the day to come.

Homer and I were in Tongue River country that morning to hunt wild turkeys and visit our old friend Bunny whose family has been ranching in the valley since not long after those last fierce battles between the Native Americans and the invading forces of U.S. soldiers.

It is a hard, tough piece of country that has broken the spirit and will of many who came over the generations. The remnants of sagging homestead shacks can be seen here and there across the landscape, in wooded draws deep in the Tongue River Breaks or on grassy river bends on the valley bottom giving mute testament to the challenges of the harsh country. Those who endured, however, came to know the good and beauty of the country and thrived there.

Although the dust is long settled from those desperate battles of the distant past, another bitter contest is playing out in that corner of Montana. Like the bloody confrontations so long ago, this battle is also a fight for a way of life and the soul of a place.

For the better part of four decades, many of the ranchers in and around the Tongue River country have been stubbornly resisting the forces promoting larger and larger scale coal development.

Some of the mines, first proposed in the mid-’70s, never materialized. The proposed Tongue River Railroad, originally intended to serve one of the mines that never opened, is back on the drawing board with a new proposed route to access potential mines in the Otter Creek area east of the Tongue.

The advent of coal bed methane extraction has added another huge threat and concern for the farmers and ranchers who rely on water from the Tongue River for their agricultural operations. Upstream in Wyoming, coal bed methane development has proceeded almost unchecked. One result of coal bed methane development is the accumulation of large quantities of contaminated water that threaten water quality in the river. The threat is serious for those who rely on good water for their livelihoods, especially in so arid a country where scarce water is the lifeblood.

That southeast corner of Montana is a precious and beautiful part of the Montana landscape that few Montanans know well. Sparsely populated and a long way from anywhere, we generally pay little heed to what happens down that way. But now, with the prospect of greatly expanded coal mining activity focused on the Otter Creek tracts, and the transportation infrastructure that would be required to move that coal from Otter Creek, it is about time we started paying attention. Oh, and there is that little thing about the contribution of coal burning to global climate change, too.

Sitting around the dinner table at Bunny’s place, talk of these matters ranged far and wide, and across the decades when Bunny and others just like him have spent their days wresting a living from the land and raising their families on the land, and their nights and weekends working to protect that land from the looming threats of energy development.

Once in while as we talked, Bunny would rise from the table and rummage through the stacks of reports, studies, environmental impact statements, and other documents that covered every available flat spot in the room, including the floor. Those documents reflect the history of 40 years of advocacy on behalf of the river, the land and the people who live there.

Bunny was practically a kid when Homer first met him and later introduced him to me. Now, all these years later, Bunny and the other ranchers who have waged the prolonged battle are old warriors in a battle that must sometimes seem endless. To endure that long and be able to keep going in the face of powerful economic forces, a sense of humor is required. At any rate, lots of funny stories and laughter added joy to our otherwise serious discussion.

It is always wonderful to go to the Tongue River Valley and drop in on Bunny. Folks in those places live life closer to the bone than those of us in our comfortable city neighborhoods and nearby suburbs. A few days in such a place can cleanse a soul, at least for a while. And to be reminded that people are willing to sacrifice and struggle to protect something they cherish for all of us is fuel for hope.

When the time came for us to head for home, Bunny’s final words summed it up just fine:

“If you write anything about your trip down here, you tell them we’re not going to sacrifice our way of life and the health of this land just to send a bunch of coal to China.”

Homer and I did collect a couple of turkeys, and we made time to wade out into the cool waters of the Tongue for a little spring fishing, too. As we drove north toward home on the Tongue River Road we remembered dawn on the ridge above the valley, and hoped aloud that we’ll be able to return years from now to find that there are still no other lights visible than the light of the stars.


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