Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Otter Creek history

Posted on Wed, Jan 6, 2010 at 3:16 PM

I attended the State Land Board Hearing on December 21 to watch a major decision regarding the future of Montana. The rationalization that emerged to cause four of the five board members to vote in favor of leasing Otter Creek Coal was that somebody was going to supply the coal, so why not us. After all, regulatory safeguards will protect us. It was, however, not possible to view the proceedings solely in the context of Otter Creek coal. There was more before the board than a simple decision to lease or not to lease coal.

The testimony relative to pollution, high-sodium coal, ruptured aquifers, tons of carbon emissions, destructive railroads and un-sustainability mounted as witnesses presented their views. The board's carefully crafted responses, however, caused my mind to drift back to the words of Charles "Buffalo" Jones, a 19th century commercial hide hunter: "Often while hunting these animals as a business, I fully realized the cruelty of slaying the poor creatures. Many times did I 'swear off,' and fully determine I would break my gun over a wagon-wheel when I arrived at camp...The next morning I would hear the guns of other hunters booming in all directions and would make up my mind that even if I did not kill any more, the buffalo would soon all be slain just the same."

In the winter of 1882-1883, ranch hands of Levi Howe shot the last buffalo on Horse Creek, a tributary to Otter Creek. In the summer of 1883, rancher Walt Alderson shot one lonely old bull near the Tongue River—the last of millions. This hearing was about the very same landscape—only deeper!

The majority presenting testimony pleaded for the current sustainable ranch economy, the people's fish and wildlife, and a healthy planet. The commercial boosters argued for jobs and revenue. They and the politicians promised that the Montana regulatory structure would protect us. The fact is the regulatory structure put in place over 35 years ago has been severely depleted by legislative erosion and a lack of regulatory resolve. Those original protections were enacted in a precious period in Montana history, a time when there were progressive politicians on both sides of the political aisle. That "golden moment" in history has been replaced, and the reliance on regulations may well be a misplaced hope.

I was struck by the testimony presented by Jeanie Alderson relative to the value of sustainable agriculture and the benefits of non-industrial landscapes. Her testimony returns the buffalo to the story, since it was her great-great-uncle Walt who shot that lonely bull above the Tongue River in 1883. It was her great- great-aunt Nannie who clipped the old bull's curly mane to stuff a pillow. The Alderson testimony was a dramatic demonstration of the conservation ethic that emerged and grew strong in our Montana culture, generation upon generation. It is a land ethic now held at the grassroots level in this state. It is an ethic that deserved better political representation than the single lonely vote of one board member.

For the Montana Land Board it is now the same "next morning" experienced by Charles "Buffalo" Jones. Four of the five could only "hear the guns" of other planetary polluters. Only one had the courage to "break my gun over a wagon-wheel" and stand on principle. Denise Juneau was that person when she voted "no" and told us why. They are words that warrant repetition. "We cannot vote as if we have blinders on and only see our present economic picture," she said. "We must take lessons from the past seven generations and also look forward and provide for the interests of the next seven generations." She only had one vote, but it keeps hope alive.

Jim Posewitz, Helena
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