High Line Fever

Like many other American writers, John Steinbeck was drawn to Montana. He described the allure of the Big Sky state in Travels with Charley: “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it. The scale is huge, but not overpowering, The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda. Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.” I know what Steinbeck meant.

But Montana also has a dark side. I came here to see both. As field work for an investigation into the mining industry, Larry Tuttle, who runs the Center for Environmental Equity in Portland, and I hit the road to visit three mining sites: Zortman-Landusky next to the Ft. Belknap Reserveration in the Little Rockies; the old Iron Mike mine on the Continental Divide and the planned McDonald gold project along the Blackfoot River.

I flew from Portland into Great Falls, the Missouri River town at the base of the Rocky Mountain Front. The airport is large for a city this small. That’s because it is connect to Malstrom Air Force Base, a command post for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The day I arrived the commander of the air base held a press conference pleading for a new generation of Minuteman missiles, “the old crop having gone out of date”. In the West, airports and prisons often seem to be neighbors. The Great Falls prison is a shadeless compound situated next to the Malstrom AFB, where prisoners, many of them Indians, are subjected to the perpetual thunder of fighter jets and commercial airliners landing and taking off. The Air Force jets are coming in 24-hours a day, one flight every 20 minutes. It’s difficult to imagine anyone getting used to the sound or being able to sleep through the night. That’s why the prison was put there, according to Steve Leach, a prison rights activist in Billings. “Those overflights are considered a form of punishment.”

Great Falls is an industrial town that bears the scars of the old Anaconda copper smelter that polluted the city for decades and dumped toxins and heavy metals into the Missouri. Even the falls, which caused Lewis and Clark some of their most anxious moments, are gone now, submerged beneath a series of useless dams erected that most destructive of federal agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers. Before leaving we toured the new Lewis and Clark Museum, which drapes over the canyon rim near where the Corps of Discovery had made the most treacherous portage of their journey. As such museums go, this isn’t a bad one. Lewis is presented as the manic-depressive he was, while Clark comes off as the more stable and humane of the two. The Indians are treated with respect, particularly Sacagawea who is reverentially presented as the Mother Teresa of the Lemhi Shoshone (though Indians may more rightly view her as a Mata Hari). The tribes aren’t patronized, though the difficult subject of genocide doesn’t get mentioned. The museum, operated by the US Forest Service, makes much of the fact that Lewis and Clark were first-rate ethnographers and naturalists, though it neglects to discuss the despicable uses people like John Jacob Astor, Phillip Sheridan, George Crook and James J. Hill would soon put to their information. I didn’t realize that the Corps had brought with them a small pox vaccine-it turned out to be as useless as Lewis’ folding-iron canoe, dissovling during the first spill into the Missouri.

As we pulled out of Great Falls onto Highway 89 north toward Ft. Benton, I picked up a copy of the Great Falls Tribune, one of America’s best daily newspapers. The lead story was an all-too familiar one. The previous day federal animal killers with the USDA’s ADC program tracked down three wolves on the Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau and shot them from a helicopter. Their crime: they were suspected of killing two lambs and injuring a calf. The killing operation cost more than $15,000. The lambs and calf were valued at less than $750. Two weeks earlier, three more wolves had been captured in the Bitterroot valley, south of Missoula, again for harassing sheep. One of the wolves died, apparently strangled to death by the government trapper. There’s something terribly amiss here. These wolves, whose predations on livestock are minimal, should have been given a medal for knocking off a lamb every now and then, not stuck with a bounty on their heads. There is a lamb glut in the US, partially due to a flood of post NAFTA/GATT imports from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And, through a fund administered by the Defenders of Wildlife, ranchers are fully compensated (at higher than current market value rate) for each cow or sheep killed by a grizzly or wolves.

So why kill the wolves, if the pressure isn’t coming from the ranchers? It has little to do with economics and everything to do with politics. Bruce Babbitt wants to demonstrate that under his flexible administration of the Endangered Species Act predators that get out of hand will be given the death penalty. No questions asked; no quarter given. In the Ninemile Valley, north of Missoula, ranchers have come to look with pride and affection on the two packs denning on their lands. They feel protective of the wolves. One of them told me: “I’ll be damned if I’ll let the feds know where those pups are. Surest way for them to get killed.”

There is another factor at work as well. The Feds would just as soon see the wolf and grizzly made the scapegoat for the economic problems of the ranchers, problems that are really the result of the trade policies pushed by neoliberals and neocons. The ranchers know this, even though the media feigns ignorance George McClellan runs a 1,500 cattle in the Kettle Range of eastern Washington. McClellan runs a fine-looking, clean operation. If anyone should be making a profit in this business, it’s him. But he’s about to sell out. Beef prices have tumbled since enactment of NAFTA and have never recovered. On top of that a monopoly exists in the meatpacking industry. “We’ve got only one place to sell our beef,” McClellan says. “That’s IBP. They tell you the price. You take it or leave it. Well, I worked my ass off last year and still lost $6,000.” What’s going to happen to this rangeland when people like McClellan give it up? Who’s left: the big corps, ranchettes owned by Microsoft execs (complete with Lear jet landing strips), gated communities along trout streams and the slob rancher.

This is Blackfoot Country, land that once belonged to the most feared of the Indians of the northern plains. It’s an austere, wind-battered terrian of rolling plains of short-grasses, pronghorn and cutthroat trout streams. It was by one of those streams, the Marias River, that the Plains Indian wars began, when Meriwether Lewis and part of his expedition stumbled across a Blackfoot encampment and shot their way out, killing a young Indian and wounding several others. The grizzlies used to wander down here from their mountain dens 60-miles to the west. Now the Blackfoot are mustered on a small reservation at Browning, the bears rarely venture past the boundries of Glacier Park and the landscape is covered with fields of wheat and alfafa and pock-marked by underground missile silos, the prairie-dogs of the nuclear age.

At the town of Havre Route 87 joins with Highway 2, the road they call the High-Line. It parallels the Canadian border, running along side the sweeping meanders of the Milk River, past small marshes alive with frantic flights of killdeer plovers and yellow-headed blackbirds, and through railroad towns like Chinook, and Havre that haven’t changed all that much in sixty years. Except for the neon profusion of casinos. The casinos and state-sponsored slots and video poker machines are one more blast at the Indians, who had just begun to see a new trickle of money find its way to them.

From Havre (pronounce ‘have-her’) the crumpled outline of the Bear Paw Mountains frames the southern horizon. This where Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe’s thrilling escape from their pursuers in the US Cavalry come to its bloody conclusion, just forty miles from the safety of the Saskatchewan. They had stopped for a few days here on an alluvial bench near the Milk River, exhausted from a dozen battles along the 1,500-mile trek that took them from eastern Oregon, across Idaho, up the steep Bitterroot Mountains, through the Big Hole and the Yellowstone Country and up the Rocky Mountain front. Joseph and his fellow Nez Perce leaders mistakenly believed they had eluded the senseless pursuit of Gen. Nelson Miles. But Miles had finally tracked them down, set up cannons on a ridge above their camp and fired upon them in the early morning with Howitzers and deadly Hotchkiss guns. The Nez Perce warriors could have easily escaped that day, across the river into Canada. But Miles knew they would never abandon the women and children at the camp. Joseph surrendered and the Nez Perce were marshalled onto two small reservations in Idaho and Washington.

There has been attempt by revisionist historians to redeem Miles’ career in the last few years and shift the blame for the brutal treatment of the Indians to his rival George Crook. To those who know his career, though, Miles remains one of the true bastards of the West. It was to Miles that Gen. William T. Sherman wrote this infamous letter, outlining what can best be described as a kind of Ur-Phoenix program: “If some of the worst Indians could be executed I doubt not the results would be good-but that is impossible after surrender under conditions. Rather remove all to a safe place and then reduce them to a helpless condition.” The real genocide against the American Indians occurred not on the battlefield, but on the reservation. Miles got his start killing Indians during the Red River Wars againsts the Comanche and southern Cheyenne. His favorite tactic was to kill their horses, burn their tipis and destroy their crops. Miles shipped the leaders of the Cheyenne tribes off to prison in Florida, where he later sent Geronimo. Miles had a hand in the assassination of both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. He played competing Sioux chiefs, such as Red Cloud and American Horse, against each other. And betrayed the Crow, who he had used as a surrogate army against both the Sioux and the northern Cheyenne. After the Indian wars, he used his troops as strikebusters, highlighted by a particularly bloody assault on the Pullman workers in 1894.

We turned south at Malta, a town the mining industry claims as one of its dependents. It’s hard to detect where those benefits have trickled down. Malta looks just like all the other towns on the High Line, dusty, weather-scarred, economically depressed. As with Havre, Harlem, Zurich and Chinook, the biggest action seems to be at the grain elevators, which, a gas attendent tells me, “are holding wheat from back in the Carter administration. Keep it at 53 degrees and it’ll stay forever.” Of course, that’s a big problem. All the grain elevators have been full for 20 years and nobody’s been buying much for ten.

Our destination is the Little Rocky Mountains, an island range that rises like a pod of humpback whales out of the Great Plains. The entrance to the Little Rockies rivals that of any national park. There are slot canyons, natural bridges, caves, rockshelters and towering walls of limestone. Most of the Little Rockies are part of the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation, where the Assinboin and Gros Ventre Tribes were confined by Miles and his cronies in 1876. But the southern tip of the range was swindled from the Indians in the early 1900s when gold nuggets were found in some of the creeks. Pick-ax miner cames and went over the next 70 years, then in 1979, Pegasus Gold, a Reno-based company, acquired the site, called Zortman-Landusky, and began to excavate the biggest open pit gold mine in Montana.

The top 1,000 feet of two mountain peaks where sheared off and two 800-foot deep pits were carved into the earth. The rock was crushed and placed on heap-leach pads, some of them more than 600-feet tall, where it was doused with a sodium cyanide solution. The sodium cyanide is purchased in 100-gallon barrels from DuPont, whose stake in the new chemical mining boom is largely hidden but very profitable. It is mixed with water and then sprayed on the mounds of crushed rock. The gold is leached out-at the rate of .12 ounces per ton. And, in theory, the cyanide-laced water drains into holding ponds. Despite the enormous size of the project, an environmental impact statement was never completed for the mine.

The mine went at it full-blast for more than 15-years. The mine itself isn’t on Indian lands and it employed few people from the Reservation, but since operations began it has forever altered the lives of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboin who live there. We up Mission Creek Canyon cuts through the reservation from the small town of Hays back toward the mine. The gaping scar of the mine is visible from nearly every spot on the Reservation, including the tribe’s sundance site and it literally engulfs, Mission Peak, a sacred site. Before the mine went in, Mission Creek was a world class trout stream. Then in the mid-1980s, the fish began to die. “We found them floating belly up, hundreds of them,” says Joe Azure, of Red Thunder. “We took them to a toxicologist and found they were loaded with toxins and heavy metals from the mine.”

The Indians mobilized against Pegasus, joining forces with anti-mining organizers Jim Jensen and Will Patric to oppose an expansion of the mine in 1994. Pegasus responded to the opposition by backmail, threatening that if it wasn’t allowed to dig another two pits it would halt operations entirely and fire its 280 workers. The strong-arm tactics worked. The Interior Department and the State of Montana both approved the expansion in 1996. The Indians and the enviros sued, but before a final decision could be reached the price of gold began its plunge. Pegasus shut down the mine and filed for bankruptcy protection. The mine-workers were laid off, but Pegasus’s lawyers went before US Bankruptcy Judge Gregg Zive and asked for $5.5 million in bonuses for the company’s top executives. The judge approved the request but reduced the amount to a cool $5 million. “We need to induce employees to continue working during difficult times,” explained Pegasus’s lawyer Mark Thompson. Of the execs (including the CEO) banked the money and quickly ran off to other firms.

Meanwhile, the big hole at Zortman-Landusky remains and it is leaking acid, arsenic, cyanide and other heavy metals. The cleanup of the site is now the responsibility of the state of Montana and its taxpayers. The price is estimated at more than $100 million, but most agree that won’t begin to repair the damage.

From the Little Rockies we headed south into the Missouri Breaks, a labryinth of hidden canyons on the southern flack of a rare undammed stretch of the Missouri. Today, this region is part of the Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Russell was an untrained painter who lived in Missoula. His primitive watercolors of the Old West and the Blackfoot Indians rival anything produced by the more popular Frederic Remington. For those who’ve never been on a wildlife refuge in the West and wonder if you can actually see a lot of animals, the answer is yes: cows. Most national wildlife refuges are leased for livestock grazing and the Russell was no different. For the next, 80 miles cows were our constant companion. Where ORVs and dirtbikes were prohibited in order to protect prairie dog colonies, cows were given free reign. As we left the refuge, we turned back for one last look at the Little Rockies a hundred miles to the north. Even from here the mine was visible, shining like a grim smile on the horizon.

As we crossed the Rockies on our way to Missoula, we descended into the small hamlet of Lincoln, the redoubt of the Ted Kaczinski. We ran into the woman who cut Ted’s hair after he was arrested. She now refers to herself as the Unabarber. Kaczinski wasn’t a total recluse. In fact, he was a familiar character in town. He used to pedal his bike down to the library, a fine-looking structure about the size of the average two-car garage in some midwestern city like Toledo, Ohio. After Kaczinski was nabbed, much commentary was made about how Kaczinski must of have been deranged, because he lived in such a “cramped and dingy” shack. But the Unabomber’s cabin is a pretty fair replica of the other houses in Lincoln, which real estate agents refer to as “idyllic retreats”, put on the market at $100,000 and find lots of buyers for. Kaczinski lived at the foot of Dalton mountain and from his road I’m told he had a sweeping view of the Blackfoot River valley and a pair of buttes a few miles to the west called Seven-Up Pete.

Some say the thing that really pissed off Kaczinski in the past few years was the plan by mining giants Phelps Dodge and Canyon Resources to demolish Seven-Up Pete with a new gold mine that would exceed in scale even the Zortman-Landusky. It was after the proposals were announced, these folks say, that Ted K. began showing up at environmental gatherings. The Seven-Up Pete plan was certainly outrageous. It called for the two 600-feet tall buttes to be leveled and replaced with a gaping hole 1,200-feet deep. Waste rock would be piled up in 800-foot tall mounds. The cyanide heap-leach pads would sprawl over 900-hundred acres of land. All of it right next to the Blackfoot River, perhaps the world’s most famous trout stream.

These are the sacred waters of Norman Mclean, the river of his book A River Runs Through It. Half of the land for the mine is owned by the state of Montana, the other half is part of a ranch owned by one of Montana’s most famous families: the Baucuses. The ranch is run by John Baucus; his brother Max is the senior US senator for Montana, a fashionable liberal who has the backing of Hollywood stars like Robert Redford. The Baucus family stood to make more than $14 million from leasing out this portion of their ranch a smelter and a mining waste pile.

Just outside Missoula we stop in a little bar called Trixie’s where cowboys, loggers, fly-fishers and river runners mingle, amicably it appears. Trixie was a rodeo showgirl in the forties known for her rope tricks and trick riding. After dark, Trixie, it is said, put her rope to more Sadean purposes and the establishment earned a reputation as one of the more rambunctious whorehouses in the west. Today, the bar serves thick and bloody hamburgers saddled with mountains of ranch fries and ice-cold bottles of Budweiser. Trixie’s is a micro-brew free saloon. Shortly after the feds hauled Ted K. away, Trixie’s began offering a popular t-shirt: “If you want a drink come to Trixie’s, if you want to get bombed go to Lincoln.”

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3