From the Great Fall Tribune:
December 31, 2009
Otter Creek decision reminiscent of old buffalo hunter
By JIM POSEWITZ
I attended the State Land Board Hearing Dec. 21, not to testify, since I had done that in writing, but to watch the political theater around a major decision.
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, there is an export potential to Pacific Rim countries, and we can pick up some big revenue.
It was, however, not possible to view the proceedings solely in the context of Otter Creek coal and the Tongue River Railroad to haul it away. There was more before the board than a simple decision to lease or not to lease coal.
The testimony relative to pollution, climate change, high-sodium coal, ruptured aquifers, tons of carbon emissions, and unsustainability mounted as witnesses presented their views.
The board's carefully crafted responses carried the hearing through the morning. Listening to the board, my mind drifted back to Charles "Buffalo" Jones, a 19th century commercial hide hunter.
Here is what he said:
"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 1882-83 ranch hands of Levi Howe shot the last buffalo on Horse Creek, tributary to Otter Creek. In the summer of 1883 rancher Walt Alderson shot one lonely old bull near 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 were also there to make argument for industrial strength employment and revenue. Both the commercial boosters and the board placed reliance on the Montana regulatory structure to insure temperance.
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. In essence, those very same interest groups who traditionally line up for lowering environmental protection were now offering the regulatory residual as
assurance for our future.
Those original protections were put in place in a precious period in Montana history, a time when there were progressive politicians on both side of the political aisle.
That "golden moment" in history was replaced with one where one side of the aisle resembles little more than a population of corporate lemmings, while the other holds all the seats on the board. That expectation of the electorate was a misplaced hope.
As a result, addressing the environmental peril at hand once again falls to the people, who carry the burden of Sisyphus, and to one board member with the courage and wisdom to say "no."
Everyone ignored the real possibility that this buried carbon at rest called coal, may well be burned in China. Current events just concluded in Copenhagen reveal the Chinese diplomats as less than enthusiastic about curbing global contamination.
We can still remember they had to momentarily shut down their industries just to get through the Olympics. Also ignored was a promised Montana ballot issue that will seek to impose a "takings" claim with the potential to either raid state funds or cripple the already compromised regulatory process.
The most refreshing part of the hearing was the testimony of students from Missoula's Big Sky High School. The students presented factual, emotional and inspirational testimony; but, then it is their future on this planet that is at stake.
However, the moment they finished, the board, without pause, began reading carefully prepared motions and statements — statements obviously prepared long before the morning's proceeding.
Positions prepared before the students wrote theirs, before their icy drive from Missoula, and before listening to their emotional but reasoned pleas.
Granted, the board already had substantial input, but still, this was a government body with an educational trust responsibility. They chose to give the students a tough civics lesson in real world politics.
Finally, Jeanie Alderson presented testimony 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 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. 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.