Saving the Rocky Mountains: Drilling, Mining and Logging in `Multi-Use' Nature
"Larry Campbell describes George Bush as a `master of manipulation.. Fight against the `politics of paranoia'. The president intentionally stirs up fears - of terrorism, grizzlies and fire. Everything is meant to stage himself as the rescuer..this president has sold us down the river."
SAVING THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS;
DRILLING, MINING AND LOGGING IN MULTI-USE NATURE
George W. Bush has found a new use for the Rocky Mountains. His administration will plunder the mineral resources of Montana and Wyoming. Environmentalists are shocked.
By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff
[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT 19/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2004/19/Rocky_3.]
To find his enemy, Rick Bass set out to the end of America where his neighbors are bears and mountain lions and the visit of the mailman is an event. He came to write poems and novels in the solitude. He fires off petitions and protest letters. About his enemy, he says words that only occur to a poet: "George Bush is the Midas of the modern age. Whatever this king touches doesn't become gold. Instead everything is consecrated to destruction."
Bass forces his words. He is out of breath. The hike lasted two hours and went steeply uphill. The forest is dense and the paths are overgrown with foliage. Bass pushes forward, a gaunt man in his mid-forties without a gram of fat. A baseball cap is on his head and a well-worn pack on his back. Occasionally he stops and admires the ferns, moss and trees. Once he pointed to a blueberry bush and said: "Bear food", with a satisfied grin. This year promises a good harvest for the grizzlies.
One must travel for a long time to meet Rick Bass. After first flying to northwest Montana, a drive through the Rocky Mountains toward Canada is necessary. Every thirty miles a settlement turns up, the last one is named Libby alongside Yaak valley. At first this seems like a fairytale forest, a mysterious wonder-world. Then the landscape becomes tedious, 20 to 30 miles with nothing but trees, no houses, no clearing and no view of the mountain, only the monotony of the wilderness.
A hike through this thicket would be humdrum without the warning sign in the road: "Caution! Grizzly area!" This changes everything. One is constantly on guard and notices every sound. A little bell hangs on the backpack to frighten bears and pepper spray if a grizzly approaches. Rick Bass uses poetic words and has no fear. "This region is the Noah's ark of the North. Nothing has died out here since the Ice Age, no plant and no animal." The Yaak Mountain region is actually the only area outside the national parks where grizzly bears still live. There aren't many any more. The hunting authorities estimate 30; conservationists fear there are only 13. The newspaper reports when anyone even sees a beast. Some have names as though they were old friends, Mary, Lenny, Jake and grandma.
The mountain ridge of Clay Mountain is the only place in the whole region that offers a view. Only a few bruised pines grow here. After arriving, Rick Bass points to the South: "They want to ram the silver- and copper mines there behind the flanks." 10,000 tons of mineral ore will be hauled every day over new roads. Truck convoys will pass at the narrowest place of the migration corridor for 35 years. Bass sees a crafty military strategy in the mining permission: First "surround" and "cut off supply routes" and then "attack" and "destroy". At the end "the grizzlies are dead". Not long ago, another president declared the grizzlies should not die. That president had bears imported in the Yaak Mountain for the first time, four females from Canada. This president's name was Bush. Twelve years later, his son says America's largest mine and America's smallest grizzly population are compatible. A change of course could not be clearer.
George W. Bush thinks the economy and ecology are harmonized best when the balance between the two is restored. The democrats are criticized for environmental radicalism. Last Thursday their presidential candidate John Kerry on "Earth Day" reproached the Bush administration for its "polluter-friendly policy".
The president claims his approach is supported by "common sense". Common sense requires bidding farewell to complicated environmental regulations, endless environment-compatibility tests and the whole bureaucratic fuss. Since George Bush's accession to power, dumping filth in rivers, blowing waste gas in the air, carving out paths in the wilderness, cutting down trees, drilling for oil, producing gas and mining mineral ore are all increasingly easier. Without being strangulated by many laws, industry should invest in modern and environmentally friendly technology as it sees fit. Thus the remaining laws can be better enforced. The environment profits at the end. The principle of voluntariness prevails.
On the way into the valley, Rick Bass tells how he arrived in Yaak valley years ago with his wife in a dented pickup truck from Mississippi, without a pair of long-johns. The dream of being a writer was in his backpack. He bought the oldest hunting lodge of the region and wrote his poetry and fiction on the wood stove. He came to know the valley and animals and understood how little was necessary to make a pleasing landscape out of the wilderness where a golf course passes for nature.
Only the grizzly bear lives where nothing rules. Thus Rick Bass began opposing forest paths and roads, carpet deforestation and mining dislocation. He established an environmental group in an area where people displayed their convictions on bumper stickers: "Wilderness - Useless Land". A large majority elected George Bush here. This changed the poet Bass into the environmental activist Bass. "This administration", he says, "fights against the West, against everything wild and therefore against the symbol of the wilderness - the grizzly bear."
First of all, John Kennedy wants to clarify a few things. No one need speculate where John Kennedy of Kennedy Oil stands. Environmentalists or "wacko-environmentalists" are "radicals" and "99 percent" of their reproaches are "a pack of lies". "No person", Kennedy repeats, "wanted to destroy America's West". However "environmental extremists don't accept any kind of development." Montana and Wyoming sit on the "greatest energy reserves of the continent". The West, Kennedy says, is "America's Middle East".
The white peaks of the Bighorn Mountains appear in the horizon as though cut off by a jigsaw. The prairie has an austere charm. A wind-crafted hill gently rolling like a dune landscape contrasts with the mountain range. Trees only thrive here along the running streams. People can only be found in the towns Gillette, Buffalo and Sheridan. Otherwise the prairie is fascinatingly empty. Its settlement is the history of a failure. Since the settler march, not much has happened here, apart from the short boom phase when a little oil and later coal was discovered. Five years ago everything was different when two engineers invented a method of releasing methane gas from the waterbed around coal seams. Since then the race for drilling rights has accelerated. The oilman Kennedy is also in a gas frenzy.
He turns off on a gravel track and stops alongside a metal crate as large as a few moving cartons. "This is the gas well." He opens a valve. No drilling derrick can be seen, only one pipe stuck in the ground and a few instruments. "The gas is colorless, odorless and clear", Kennedy says. Kennedy Oil owns 500 of these drilling rigs. Altogether 12,000 are planted in the prairie. In a few years there will be 60,000 in Wyoming alone. There could be just as many next-door in Montana. Drilling will occur around the protected canyons of Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. The richest gas deposits discovered in the United States lie there. There was never a greater extraction boom on public land. A surface as large as North Rhine-Westphalia will be released for 2004. The explicit policy of the Bush administration is to produce more and import less. The search for fuel concentrates on the Rocky Mountains since the Senate has refused to drill the completely untouched Alaska Wildfire Refuge.
John Kennedy has only one problem with this policy. It doesn't advance fast enough. For months he has waited for two-dozen drilling permits. "Analysis paralysis" is the problem, he says, paralysis through constantly new expert opinions and protests from environmentalists. For Kennedy, methane gas will be the last energy boom of his career. He is now 62. At 19 he borrowed money from his mother, purchased a pipeline and became independent. When he had his first million, he didn't think he would go bankrupt a second time when a crisis came over Wyoming. Today he has 40 employees and is the only member of the middle class in a world of energy giants. He will not allow a few conservationists to destroy this business and "the prosperity of a whole nation". In a few years people in the raw prairie could be "as rich as in Silicon Valley".
A man of similar visionary power guides the energy policy of the country. Vice-president Richard Cheney, a son of Wyoming, learned at home that the native soil only waited to be tapped. As head of the president's energy commission, he taught his compatriots that energy savings could be "a sign of personal virtue" but "not a basis of rational energy policy", a sentence that John Kennedy finds fantastic.
Kennedy heads for a commanding hill. From there the gas fields can be surveyed. Five compressors drone like jet engines. Each one is packaged in a windowless metal container as large as a single-family home. The gas is enclosed in pipelines. There is one compressor house for five wells that run around the clock.
The transformation of a whole landscape can be seen from this vantage-point. Once these hills were endless hunting grounds of Indians and then endless pastures of ranchers. Today they are an endless chain of industrial parks. Roads carve up the pastures as far as the eye can see. The whole prairie is a practice field. Twenty miles of roads exist. Pipelines lie alongside the roads. A few thousand-compressor houses in small clusters are connected by circuit lines. In the middle are material warehouses and thousands of metal crates over the drill holes.
John Kennedy points to a small herd of antelopes. Everything is in order in the state of Wyoming! The antelopes run to a little lake. These ponds lie everywhere like swimming pools in the depressions. They arise because water is a waste product of gas production. The methane slumbers next to the coal seams in the deep water. Coal and gas are squeezed out together and then separated. 36,000 liters of spoiled water drain out of every gas well. This amounts to 432 million liters over the whole region everyday. Refilling the underground reservoirs will take centuries. For a long time there will hardly be agriculture in the tundra.
For John Kennedy, that is the price of prosperity. "The farmers obviously must be compensated", he says. He returns to the truck and takes a few plastic bottles of drinking water out of the storage compartment. "Are you thirsty?' The label shows a wild horse, Wyoming's symbol. "Methane water" is printed on the label. Kennedy offers the flask. He produced and bottled the water himself to "counter the environmentalist myth" that this water was harmful. He sent whole palettes to representatives in Congress. They had a "picnic on the Capital meadow in Washington", he said.
Everything began with the great fire in 2000. Spike Thompson was the chief forester in the Bitterroot National Forest. At first the smoke irritated his eyes and laid on the valley like a blanket. Solar eclipses and headaches continued for four weeks. Ultimately Thompson only had to look at the slope from his pickup truck's window to see how the flames reached the houses at the bottom of the valley. For a long time, the forestry office had been the center of operations. Firefighters came from everywhere in helicopters. Dozens of television teams brought fear of the fire into America's living rooms. This was the greatest fire in Montana's history. At the end, pitch-black Mikado stands, over a mile of petrified forests, were left in the Bitterroot valley.
Ultimately the first snow quenched the last flames. This was the same month in which America elected a new president. Bush was not satisfied with the explanation that hundreds of flashes of lightning kindled a fire in the parched landscape. Since then, Bush has flown into the Rocky Mountains every year as soon as the forest starts burning. He always declares that "bad forest policy" whipped up the fire, not nature or arsonists. "It was better to take the fuel from the forest", all the "underbrush" and the "small trees". Therefore the timber industry must serve as the repair team in the forest. Unfortunately, Bush says, "bureaucratic chaos" hinders the deliverers with their chainsaws from "thinning" the forest.
Spike Thompson in his Bitterroot valley is the champion of a president who armed him with a new law: the "Healthy Forests Initiative". Naturally Thompson wants to be a good official as in the past 27 years. Thus he says things that must please the chief in the White House. For example, his Forest Service doesn't only have to protect the forest. The Forest Service must also consider the interests of the timber- and mining industries and the oil- and gas industries. An American national forest - "entirely in the sense of the president" - has a "multiple use". The Bush administration strives for a "new balance" between conservation and exploitation, in plain English more logging, drilling and mining. Spike Thompson naturally doesn't say this since it would be confrontational and unsuitable for an official.
The Bitterroot Mountains, Thompson's hunting grounds, are America's Alps. Massive log cabins and little shopping malls do not exist in the valley. The bottom of the valley rises steeply, first in the forest belt and then in the wilderness of the Alpine regions. The first white explorers traveled here almost two hundred years ago. Lewis and Clark, the two discoverers of the American West, ran into a summer snowstorm at Lolo Pass, nearly starved to death and wrote in their journal that these were "the most frightening mountains they ever saw". These mountains were also the most impressive. The explorers brought the flowers they found to botanists on the east coast. Today there is a sign on Lolo Pass that later settlers "preferred a more viable type of land management". That is the subtle paraphrase for the complete deforestation that followed. The slopes near the valley were smoothly cut as with a straight razor. The wounded flanks will be seeded again for the first time since the sixties. President Bill Clinton insisted that no more roads should be built in the remote regions of the public forests. Since then, George Bush has torpedoed this rule with all his strength since the timber industry needs access roads to rescue the fire-endangered forest.
For Spike Thompson, there has never been a presidency as exciting as the term in office of George Bush. "Moderating the different interests in the forest is a true challenge", he says.
Late in the evening, Larry Campbell wanted to go to sleep. First he heard a car, then one shot after another along with the sound of hammers. Three shocks vibrated in his own house, not far off in the distance. Campbell shows the bullet-holes like trophies: Look, he said, they hate me so much! Campbell thinks he knows the perpetrators, even if not personally. "Sawdust brains", he calls them, people who can only imagine a future with power-saws. With the "Logger days" as the annual festival, Larry Campbell fears that he could be beaten up.
To the logger clientele, Campbell is regarded as a master example of the environmentalist put through the grinder. His house in the middle of the wilderness was built according to ecological guidelines. No circuit lines obtrude; a solar cell is planted on the roof. The water comes from the well and stream and the vegetables from his own greenhouse. The food is cooked in a hole in the ground. That Campbell only catches rattlesnakes on his property and is exposed but never killed in the forest can be regarded as very strange...
Thus Campbell tames the whole region with his environmental initiatives against George Bush's "healthy forests". Fight against the "politics of paranoia". The president intentionally stirs up fear - "of terrorism, grizzlies and fire". Everything is meant to stage himself as the rescuer. "He wants to convince Americans", Campbell says, "that the forest can only be saved by cutting it down."
Hardly anyone voices this criticism in a region that has profited from the overexploitation of seemingly infinite resources for 150 years. Only 900,000 people live in all Montana, a state that is larger than Germany. Here Campbell represents the "snobbism of the east coast" that only wants to drive out the distinctiveness of the Rocky Mountains people. That Campbell studied in Princeton and still looks like an elite student at 55 fits the stereotype. His environmental initiative, the "Friends of Bitterroot", is dismissed as the work of outsiders.
In contrast, those who say "the forest grows like a cancer" represent the conservative mainstream. That sentence comes from Gale Norton, the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, who knows that cancer "must be treated". Norton is regarded in America as the "queen of the free wild" because she commands all public land, that is over a fifth of America and the largest part of the Rocky Mountains. Once she was an attorney of the lead industry. Now she is the counsel of villages and regions. Washington, she herself, will no longer interfere when the local authorities say they want to drill, log and mine. Their conservation is "cooperative" because it includes the local population. The disadvantage, according to John Kerry, the presidential candidate, is that "thirty years of environmental legislation are being destroyed". The government in the matter of environment protection, Kerry says, plays "with dirty tricks". Therefore the challenger has begun to make conservation into his theme although conservation is usually ignored in American politics. Environment protection, Kerry believes, is "the great slumbering theme" of the election campaign.
One cannot visit Larry Campbell without going into the terrain with him. This hike passes through the "healthy forest" of the Bush administration. Again and again Campbell stops at the tree stumps. The forest was thinned as the law requires. Giant trees that stood when Lewis and Clark explored the region were removed, not undergrowth and young trees. "Fine material for the timber industry", Campbell rumbles. "If removal of the fire danger were actually primary, all the settlements in the valley would be secured." He never saw a greater contradiction in politics between words and deeds. Campbell describes George Bush as a "master of manipulation". Standing high above the Bitterroot valley, he gives a little introduction in what he calls "Bush's dictionary of environmental language":
Law for healthy forest = encourages logging
Law for clean air = authorizes more power plant emissions
Remove bureaucracy = limits citizen participation
Make laws enforceable = relaxes regulations for industry
All together, Larry Campbell believes America is experiencing "the greatest setback since the beginning of environmental legislation". Campbell does not simply say this. By profession, he is a geologist and presents expert opinions on exploration: for silver and copper, oil and gas. The more rules fall, the more difficult it is for him to work industry. Campbell's job is not secret. The neighbors must recognize that Larry Campbell is not the eco-fundamentalist as they had always stylized him.
Stewart Brandborg learned about wilderness over a whole summer when he was 17. In 1942, he sat in a tiny wooden hut at the summit of Ward Mountain, 10,000 feet high. Every twenty minutes Brandborg went to the door and searched the horizon with binoculars, above all the mountainsides. He received $135 to warn people in the Bitterroot valley when the burning began. Occasionally they sent him provisions on mules. He could only leave the hut to fetch berries, wood or water. At the end of the fire season, he was first allowed to return to the valley. Thus the young man had time to study a "primitive region" as it was called at that time, a primeval landscape where nothing had changed for a hundred years or even a thousand years, a region that the first Americans suspected should be protected more than conquered. His experiences on the mountain were engrained in him. Afterwards he dedicated his life to the idea of saving stillness and nothingness from the excesses of people. During the summer on Ward Mountain, he noted down the minutest observations on animals and plants as Lewis and Clark once did.
He tells the story of his awakening experience over a breakfast of pancakes with wild blueberries. Steward Brandborg stands at the stove. When he takes a few steps from his house, he can see Ward Mountain that taught him 62 years ago that wilderness is the corrective of civilization. For a long time, Steward Brandborg has been regarded as an icon of the American environmental movement and his biography as a triumph. However Brandborg has had to ask himself recently whether his success story was written too soon.
The sixties and seventies was the great time of the environmental movement for him. At that time, Brandborg says, "industry wasn't so brilliantly organized" and public opinion was "still on our side". Brandborg worked in Washington as the director of the Wilderness Society and a lobbyist for a revolutionary concept: making wilderness into a term of American law. Whole regions of America should be protected from people, more radically than in national parks where nature has to endure roads, huts and tourism. Whoever goes into the wilderness must go like the explorers - on foot or on horseback. The intruder should disappear again. One may visit but not inhabit the wilderness.
Steward Brandborg remembers how he approached Washington's representatives. He sat above in the visitors' gallery of the House of Representatives and waited for the representatives when they left the chamber. This continued eight years until the Wilderness Law was passed in 1964. This was "one of the happiest events of my life", Brandborg related, when the first 13,924 square miles were removed from all economic commercialization. Brandborg set out to open up ever new areas in the vast West. In the meantime, an area larger than Germany was declared legal wilderness. This lasted until April 11, 2003.
Late that afternoon when the representatives were on their Easter vacation, the Bush administration declared that 4400 square miles of the Canyon landscape in Utah would not be wilderness as originally planned... The Department of the Interior insisted these lands in the future "will be managed for the greatest benefit of the public". In the code language of the Bush administration, this means: encouraging drilling and mining for oil, gas and mineral ore.
To Steward Brandborg, the president is not really evil. He even has respect for his talent of packaging and implementing a classical exploitation policy in noble environmental protection rhetoric. Brandborg is annoyed about those who don't stop Bush, the late-born in the environmental movement, people "without fire in their hearts", "employees without convictions", "attorneys", "scientists", people who write nothing but profound papers. "Whoever refuses struggle", Brandborg says, "is outside our movement".
For Dale Ackels, everything began with a call. "I have marvelous news for you", he heard, "we begin drilling next week". A few stocky lads appeared and erected a drilling platform not on his ground but a mile away, just beyond the property line, first one and then two, three or four. Now there are 105 gas wells. "I am surrounded", Ackels says, "hopelessly encircled".
Dale Ackels is a late farmer, one who resolved in his old days to exchange the computer for a pitchfork. He was a soldier in a special unit and later a professor at the Army War College. With his pension, he is fulfilling a youthful dream. He always wanted to return to that prairie where his family once settled. He yearned to fish, hunt, ride and wander in the mountains. Therefore he bought a farm in the most beautiful part, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains celebrated in Robert Redford's film as the paradise of pastures and meadows. However the money was only enough for a prefabricated house, a battered pickup truck and several hectares of land. Now he grows alfalfa and sells it as horse feed. Unshaven and in work uniform, Ackels stands before his shed and tells the story of his encirclement.
The first gas wells didn't change much. Then his wells dried up. Irrigating his fields became impossible. Finally he realized: "They are stealing my water." The gas is pumped up with deep water and this water is then dumped or poured away. Dale Ackels complains. The gas company tells him not to worry. 80 percent of the ground water reservoir will be filled again in thirty years. "I am 60", Ackels says, "what are they thinking? How long can I wait?" Obviously he could simply drill deeper. But that would cost $60,000. He doesn't have that much left. He had bought his farm with the savings from his civil service work.
It took a while until Ackels understood: "I must leave here." A "For Sale" sign hangs at the entrance to his property. It has hung there for two years. "Who will buy a house in a gas field?" After a little time Ackels realized: "My savings are worthless now." Then he recognized he had only one chance: "to spend the rest of my life fighting these characters."
"These characters" are his political friends. Dale Ackels is and has been a republican all his life like president Bush. However this president, Ackels says today, "has sold us down the river. He sacrifices the five Rocky Mountain states to his energy policy." Bush, Ackels believes, misunderstands Americans and even his own voters. They long for quality of life, not profit chances for industry.
Ackels doesn't really stand alone in the vast meadow with his view, not even in remote Wyoming. People settle in the hilly country at the base of the Rocky Mountains who earned their money elsewhere and now want to live their personal western myth in the expanse of the prairie. Some buy a pickup truck and hang a rifle out the back window. In the evening, one can meet them at the Sheridan, the next stop, the mini-bar. This is the last old saloon where a real binge is possible. Old photos from the local rodeo decorate the walls. The guests come with Stetson-hats and spurs in their boots. These adventurers are called Yuppie-Cowboys. They want to be John Wayne once in their lives. They spent much money and left behind a whole city existence. They don't want their dream destroyed by a gas boom.
In the beginning, only immigrants were against the gas production. A few rebels founded an association of landowners. In the meantime, nearly half are against gas, Ackels believes. He and his fellow supporters have the goal of reminding the governing republicans of the conservation policy of conservative presidents, of Lincoln who established the first national park, Teddy Roosevelt who invented the national forests and Richard Nixon who carried out protection of endangered species. Should Bush, they ask, be presented in history books as the first president who allowed drilling in the Rocky Mountains? Next time Ackels and his friends want to elect a democrat, any democrat. "They could even nominate Jack the Ripper."
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