Ann Hedreen is a program director with Environmental Media Services Northwest in Seattle, a nonprofit communications clearinghouse dedicated to expanding and improving the quality of environmental coverage by the news media. She is also a writer, filmmaker, and co-owner with her husband of White Noise Productions, specializing in documentary and nonprofit films.
Monday, 22 Oct 2001
Earlier this month, I traveled to Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana to meet with grassroots environmental groups that are working to stop or at least slow the oil and gas development boom along the east slope of the Rockies — a boom that could get a huge boost if the Republican energy plan becomes law. The trips were planned long before Sept. 11 but took on new meaning in the wake of the disaster.
Flying from the siege-like, post-Sept. 11 chaos of Sea-Tac Airport into Billings on Oct. 2 felt like arriving in Toy Town: this was an airport on a dollhouse scale. Urbanite that I am, it took me a moment to realize that all those long cases coming down the luggage carousel were not skinny golf clubs, they were rifles. Not to worry: just hunting season in the eastern Rockies.
I rented my car and headed north out of Billings. “Welcome Hunters,” proclaimed all the tavern and motel marquees on Highway 87. Several had added underneath, “Go get ’em George W.,” or “God Bless America.” Flags flew from mailboxes, barns, pickup trucks, and tractors.
I was in Billings to begin the longest leg of a series of fall trips for Environmental Media Services Northwest. In the next week, I would visit Great Falls, Billings, and Sheridan, Wyo. I’d already been to Glenwood Springs, in western Colorado, and Trinidad, in the Raton Basin of southeastern Colorado. I was meeting with people for whom oil and gas development is a front-yard affair, not a faraway concept. Pressure was building in Washington, D.C., to pass a sweeping, dig-and-drill energy bill, and I was visiting the places that would be dramatically affected by such legislation — as well as some places where energy development is already so far along that anything Congress passes will simply add fuel to the fire.
Seattle, that cozy, liberal dream-world, felt very far away from this part of the West.
On the other hand, so did the Seattle of concrete and congestion. For a visitor from Seattle, driving in Montana is a surreal experience. The sky is big; no, it’s huge, compared to what you can see of it every day at home, where more than twice the population of this whole state lives crammed into one county.
In Montana, things were different. Huge sky, wide plains, distant mountains, one road, a handful of cars. This is what I would look at for the next four hours. My eyes were grateful.
I popped in the “Great Speeches of the 20th Century” tape I rented from the library and picked up where I’d left off the previous week in Colorado. Jesse Jackson, in his great 1988 concession speech, was exhorting his followers to, “Let this make us better, not bitter.” Could we apply this now? I wondered. To life after Sept. 11? To fighting the energy bill?
My first of these fall trips was on Sept. 21. The trauma of traveling 10 days after the terrorist attack — while trying to act upbeat and unflustered in front of my children — had drained me. Two weeks later, I was calmer, but it was a still-sore, bruised kind of calm, and I’m sure I was not alone in feeling that way.
On that first plane trip to Denver, I had tried hard to turn my thoughts to work. This is what I wrote on Sept. 21, which already seemed like a long time ago:
Two weeks ago, we were ready to do battle — to fight for our wild places, protect them from the oil men in the White House. Now all those war words don’t ring right. Our feelings about the importance of wild places has not changed. Our belief that drilling them is anything but patriotic has not changed. But more than ever before, we are called upon to show tenderness, tact, grace — qualities our opponents don’t often see in us. We are called upon to turn the patriotism we feel to action. Conservation, renewable energy, reducing demand — all are patriotic, and we are called upon to show it and prove it to a skeptical world.
Tenderness and tact? What on earth was I thinking? Two weeks had passed, Sens. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) were angling shamelessly to get a rider opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling attached to anything and everything, and I was feeling bitter, not better.
Tuesday, 23 Oct 2001
I recently returned from the Society for Environmental Journalists’ conference in Portland, Ore., where I attended seminars with titles like Business, Environment and Defense: Can Technology Save the Planet? and Laws Without Teeth? Is it Possible to Enforce the Nation’s Environmental Laws?
Heady stuff for an English major. I took lots of notes.
But despite, or perhaps because of, all that green intellectual glamour, I can’t get my mind off my recent travels to the front lines. The east slope of the Rockies, that is, where fighting the conservationist fight is a brave and often lonely calling; where a visitor from Seattle feels like the general with the cushy desk job dropping in on the combat troops.
I arrived in Great Falls on a windswept Tuesday evening just right for feeling lonely and checked in at the Ponderosa, a downtown motel with a bad identity crisis: formerly a Best Western, then a Guests First, now a Howard Johnson’s. The phones in the rooms hadn’t worked in two weeks.
Although downtown Great Falls has recently undergone a bit of an urban revival and is better off than it used to be, the city center is losing its battle with the mall. Instead of department stores on Central Avenue, there are secondhand shops, insurance agents, a member of Congress’s office, many shuttered bars, and a few open ones.
There are bright spots, though, and one of them is the Paris Gibson Museum of Art, formerly the Central High School, a grand, red-brick building with high ceilings and dark woodwork. The Montana Wilderness Association has an office there. One of its stalwart Great Falls partners is a group called the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument.
I happened to be reading Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West when I was traveling in Montana, so I was thrilled to meet some of the people who are working to protect one of the geographic highlights of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The governor of Montana, Judy Martz (R), wants to open up part of the Missouri Breaks, a brand-new national monument created in Dec. 2000, to oil and gas development, even though exploration has shown that there’s very little oil or gas in the area. Martz will go down in Montana history as the candidate who told the voters that she would “serve as a lapdog to industry.”
I talked to Wendy Whitehorn and other Friends members about the patriotic nature of the hard work they’re doing, about how preserving a national monument with tremendous historic importance as well as natural beauty is more important than ever in these troubling times. It seems like an easy message for Montana to embrace, but one has to remember that Gov. Martz’ lapdog message got her elected for a simple reason: Montanans need jobs. Movie stars may have ranches here, but this is a poor state. Not many peopl
e in Montana make more than $10 an hour. If drilling the Breaks means jobs, that’s a good thing. At least that’s how Gov. Martz thinks Montanans see it.
Whitehorn thinks otherwise. “Montanans flooded [Gov. Martz’] task force with comments. By two to one they spoke out and said, ‘we want our monument the way it is. Leave it alone,'” she pointed out. “We’ve got oil and gas interests here that want to get into the monument, in spite of the fact that there’s very little natural gas to be had within the monument boundaries.”
In just a few years, Lewis and Clark buffs will be passing through, viewing the Breaks and the Great Falls of the Missouri in celebration of the expedition’s 200th anniversary. The Lewis and Clark bicentennial could be just the break the Friends of the Breaks need.
I also talked to Howard Boggess, a Crow Indian who has spoken to reporters from around the world about Weatherman Draw. Known as the Valley of the Chiefs to Native Americans, it is considered a sacred site and is home to one of the most important collections of ancient art in the West. Carbon dating indicates that some of the drawings are 1,000 years old. Weatherman Draw, which is located on public BLM lands, is another area where Interior Secretary Gale Norton supports oil and gas drilling. Under Norton, the BLM has already approved permits to drill two new wells in the area.
Boggess removed his sunglasses when he sat down with me, explaining that Native Americans believe we should be able to see each other’s eyes when we talk.
“There’ve been seven oil wells drilled around Weatherman Draw,” Boggess said. “Every one is a dry hole. They want to put one more hole in the center of the seven. The chance is slim to none they will get oil.”
No one could explain to me why the state and federal governments are so keen to drill in a new national monument and other special places across the state where there appears to be little or no oil or gas. Like the army desk clerk who tries and fails to understand real combat, I was confounded by the contrariness of it all.
Before I left the Paris Gibson Museum, I stopped by the Lee Steen exhibit. Dozens of cottonwood branches, transformed by Steen into rakish, oddball cowboys, fill an entire room of the museum. Steen may not have called himself an environmentalist, but his work habits were very green: all his statues were carved from driftwood salvaged from the Musselshell River near his home in Roundup, Mt. He used found objects — buttons, hardware, crushed tin cans — to form eyes and other features. “A Montana original,” is how the museum described him.
Steen’s town, Roundup, is where Martz wants to put an $800 million coal-fired power plant. Montana’s got plenty of power, so the Roundup plant would most likely produce power for export to other states. “This is something really big for Montana,” Martz enthused to the Great Falls Tribune. “It’s huge.”
Martz, a former rodeo queen, knows how to work an audience. She knows how well Big — big jobs, big money — plays in the Big Sky State, but she never mentions Big Boondoggle, Big Pollution, or Big Cleanup.
Wednesday, 24 Oct 2001
I began this October Wednesday at the annual Washington Conservation Voters’ breakfast. Two Seattle mayoral candidates, our county executive, the governor, a former governor, several state representatives — these were just a few of the important people working this crucial crowd of conservation-minded supporters.
I felt newly appreciative of this yearly love-in, soggy scrambled eggs and all, after my recent travels for Environmental Media Services through the less green-friendly, non-coastal Western states. In meeting after meeting in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, I asked environmentalists to name their friends and allies in government — and got blank looks in response.
As I drove from Great Falls back to Billings on day three of my weeklong Montana/Wyoming trip, it began to snow. I sat up straight and put the wipers on and reassured myself that my tiny rental car surely had good tires. No one but me seemed surprised to see snow on Oct. 4. A few said they viewed it as a sign of a good ski season. Northern Montana is not for the faint of heart, politically or otherwise; it never has been.
I stopped at a historic marker to stretch my legs and maybe learn a little more about Lewis and Clark. But this sign wasn’t about the great explorers; it was about the Finnish settlers who came here to homestead in numbers so great that this flat sweep of land became known as Finn Bench. For a moment, standing there in the swirling snow, I felt like a Montana insider: my own forebears were Finns who settled in this state, homesteading near Red Lodge and making a living in the copper mines in Butte. Wherever they went, the Finns were known for their physical strength and stamina: they dragged the heavy timbers down the mines; they were not afraid to farm a plain as bleak as the Finn Bench.
(Two days later, I would think of those hardy Finns when I talked to Karla Oksanen from Gillette, Wyo., who is fighting what must be one of the worst neighborhood pollution cases in the nation. Karla never leaves the house without her digital camera. You never know when you might get a good shot of a toxic plume or sudden flare.)
But this was a driving day, and I listened to the grain report from Havre (red-Durham-winter-spring; it’s like a poem) and marveled at the snow. When I lost the Havre station, I went back to the “great speeches” tape I’d been listening to. I happened on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech, so frequently quoted in this past month, and what struck me was the phrase, “the empire of Japan.” In 1941, we were attacked by a mighty imperial navy. In 2001, we were attacked by a handful of stateless zealots, who, without the resources of empire, managed to do more damage in less time.
Like many people, my first instinct after Sept. 11 was to feel like nothing I could do in my job mattered any more. Environmental Media Services is committed to expanding media coverage of critical environmental and public health issues. We work directly with reporters, helping them find the sources and information they need to do good work.
I believe whole-heartedly in our mission, so luckily, my first impulse didn’t last long. On my first two trips after Sept. 11, I met with Colorado ranchers and landowners who are facing the prospect of oil and gas development in, quite literally, their own back yards. They pointed out that if the terrorist threat compels our government to increase oil and gas development in our most beautiful places, then the terrorists win.
Hearing so many stories — of what it’s like not to own your own mineral rights and stand by helplessly when your well water is sucked dry by coal bed methane production; of a teenage motorcyclist who flipped into a waste pond and had to be hosed down outside the hospital by a haz-mat team; of the coal mine that shoots toxic plumes through Karla Oksanen’s neighborhood — I began to understand what was at stake. The energy industry is already in high gear in the Rocky Mountain states. How much farther would the oil and gas companies go if Congress gave them an even freer hand?
“We have huge clouds of toxic gases,” Oksanen explained to me. “Whenever the wind blows a huge cloud of black goes across the landscape and ends up on everybody’s houses and furniture and cars. The wind blows quite often in Gillette. Nitrogen dioxide is probably one of the most dangerous gases that there is. It causes a great deal of problems, especially with asthmatics and older people.”
It is worth noting that the energy bill passed by the House would roll back existing environmental regulations in order to expedite energy development.
As I drove through Lewistown, a hub town for farmers and ranchers in the very center of Montana, I passed under a huge banner stretched across Main Street tha
t proclaimed, “One Nation, Indivisible, Under God.” On the way out of town, I passed a black billboard. In white letters it said, “Bless America,” and, down in the lower right corner, “God.”
It was still snowing. I felt a sudden surge of longing for the pre-Sept. 11 world: the golden world of that last week of summer, which my family and I spent in the beautiful Methow Valley, just east of the North Cascades, where we watched the salmon struggle homeward to spawn and die, and that was life-and-death drama enough.
Thursday, 25 Oct 2001
Seattle’s nickname is the “Emerald City,” but I don’t know too many Seattle residents who have embraced it. Sure, it’s green here, what with all the rain, but “Emerald City” sounds just a little too Wizard of Oz, a little too Rhinestone Cowboy.
Billings, Mt. is the “Magic City.” I heard the nickname several times on the radio and on local TV stations when I visited earlier this month, and I’ve seen it splashed across the city’s website. I don’t know why a macho city like Billings would be called magic — I searched the website trying to find out — but, logic be damned, it seems to have more local support than our “emerald” moniker.
Words, phrases, names, nicknames, slang — they fascinate me. Why would Billings embrace “magic,” while Seattle rejects “emerald”? Why do Montanans say “crick” instead of creek? But they do, thank God, and every time I hear “crick” I hear hope: a welcome sign that our language and culture has not become utterly homogenized from coast to coast.
At Environmental Media Services, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about language, about what words make people sit up and pay attention and what words put them to sleep. Regional quirks — crick instead of creek — are good. Environmental buzz words — sustainability, biodiversity, and so forth — tend to be instant sleep inducers, unless you’re preaching to an already devoted choir.
As I traveled around the Rocky Mountain states this fall, I picked up some great new (to me) turns of phrase, such as:
- Dirt pimp: real estate developer
- Starter mansion: picture the ridgetop castles west of Denver
- Hook and bullet crowd: fly fishers and hunters
- Ditch: irrigation district, as in, “Who runs your ditch?”
- Dog well: a coal-bed methane well that produces lots of water but little gas
But the prize goes to Roger Muggli, manager of the Tongue & Yellowstone Irrigation District (he runs his ditch) near Miles City on Montana’s eastern prairie. Muggli introduced me to the phrase, “His mouth opened wider than a two-dollar suitcase.” A member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, Muggli is trying to alert residents of eastern Montana to the dangers of the discharge of coal bed methane wastewater, which is very salty, into important irrigation sources like the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers. Coal bed methane extraction withdraws huge volumes of ground water in order to release methane from the coal seams. Millions of gallons of water are withdrawn from the aquifers that run deep under the dry West. Much of this water is subsequently flushed down the area’s rivers and streams.
One way of getting people to pay attention — to get those mouths dropping open, suitcase style — is to pour the salty water on a house plant and watch the color change from green to orange.
Two can play that game, of course: Montana Gov. Judy Martz is a lover of big gestures, too, and she has been known to drink a glass of discharged water, just to show how safe it is. But Muggli says Martz is missing the point. “This water is perfectly good for human and animal consumption but it’s a hazard to irrigate with,” he explained. “I think it’s unconscionable that we aren’t looking at [treating the water] when the stakes are so high for the entire Tongue River basin.”
Mining wastewater is just one of the problems facing Montana. Magic is definitely not the word that comes to mind when you drive in to Billings from the east, past a maze of refineries, clouds billowing from dozens of tall smokestacks. Those clouds used to be even worse, as Eileen Morris will tell you. Twenty-two years ago, she and her friend Nettie founded the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council when Nettie, an Avon lady, noticed that nearly everyone on her 100-house route suffered from asthma, like she did, or other respiratory problems. Nettie and Eileen began talking to physicians, scientists, state and federal inspectors, and refinery workers and management. They learned that none of the coal-burning refineries or power plants in Billings had scrubbers in their stacks to reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions released by the coal. They began to lobby for change, and two decades later, their hard work has resulted in huge improvements in Billings’ air quality: emissions have been cut by more than half.
Even so, Billings remains one of the five worst cities in the country when it comes to sulfur dioxide emissions. And the changes didn’t come soon enough for Nettie, who died in 1985 from an asthma attack that occurred the day after driving through a particularly bad emissions plume.
Sixteen years later, Eileen Morris and the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council soldier on. It’s still an uphill battle: the Montana legislature is always ready to give a break to the biggest companies in the state’s biggest city. Maybe it’s those companies that came up with the “magic city” nickname. I bet it wasn’t Eileen or Nettie.
Friday, 26 Oct 2001
Today’s trivia question: Where was Dick Cheney born?
Answer: not in Wyoming. Our vice president was born in Lincoln, Neb. Yes, he grew up in Casper, Wyo; yes, he graduated from the University of Wyoming; and yes, he represented Wyoming in Congress for 10 years. Still, on recent trips to Sheridan and Casper for Environmental Media Services, I had plenty of people point out that, technically speaking, Dick Cheney is not from Wyoming.
But from my media-advisor perspective, I had to do the glass-half-full routine and remind them that Cheney’s Wyoming “ties” (I won’t call them “roots”) had netted an unbelievable amount of media coverage for what was, until this year, a pretty obscure story: Wyoming’s boom in natural gas production. Once Cheney unveiled his “I Love Fossil Fuels” energy plan in May, reporters began heading to Wyoming, seeking to understand the mind of a man who could blithely dismiss conservation as, “a sign of personal virtue.” Time, Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, PBS, NBC, CBS — that’s just a partial list of the major media outfits that trekked out to the Cowboy State to cover the energy boom. They may have come out intending to talk about oil, which is certainly still a mainstay of the Wyoming economy, but they went home with stories about gas.
Why? Because the Wyoming coal bed methane gas boom is on its way to becoming the national poster child for the “rape, ruin, and run” school of energy development. This dream-come-true for the gas companies — hey, it’s cheap, it’s fast, and nobody’s trying to regulate us! — is turning into a nightmare for a lot of people. These are people who probably resemble you or your parents: folks who saved up to buy their dream retirement home only to see it surrounded by gas wells; ranchers who’ve kept the family spread going for five generations and are now watching their ground water disappear; hard-working town dwellers who live downwind of giant smokestacks.
“I’m being surrounded by gas wells,” said Dale Ackels, who bought a Wyoming farm in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains after 28 years in the military. “Slowly but surely, I’m turning into Odessa, Texas, and I didn’t come here to do that.”
“I’m a local girl,” Deborah Thomas said. “M
y husband and I went away for 10 years to get enough money to buy our property. A year ago, a wildcat rig moved into our neighborhood. It took 100 double semi loads to move it in. I’ve learned that as a surface landowner with no mineral rights you have virtually no rights at all. That the government that we would like to think protects us and our rights does not protect us or our rights if there’s a lot of money involved.”
Nancy Sorenson’s husband’s family has been ranching in northern Campbell County since 1880. So far, gas developers have drilled five wells on her property. Now, she finds herself worrying about water. “I think a big question is what is the future of the aquifers? I feel like I’m not the only stakeholder in those aquifers. So are my neighbors. So are you, indirectly!”
Ackels, Thomas, and Sorenson live in the heart of gas country: the Powder River Basin of northern Wyoming, where some 10,000 wells have already been drilled and 50,000 more are expected in the next decade. All three are members of a grassroots group called the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an alliance that is breaking Western political rules by bringing ranchers and other landowners together with conservationists.
Kevin Lind, staff coordinator for the council, is from Hardin, Mt., 80 miles north of Sheridan on the edge of the Crow Indian Reservation. Lind moved back to the U.S. two years ago after 20 years of work for relief and social service organizations in Asia. He and his wife, Bing, a native of the Philippines, are not the kind of constituents Dick Cheney regularly courted when he was Wyoming’s congressional representative during the oil boom of the 1980s. Bing is a teacher. Kevin runs a nonprofit organization. They clearly didn’t come back to take a ride on the gas boom; they came back because they wanted to raise their sons in a safer place.
But what does safe mean? Safe water to drink, safe air to breathe? Safety from terrorists? Almost anyway you define it, you can cross Wyoming off the list. Now that Cheney’s friends on the Hill are working hard to cloak their drill-the-Rockies campaign in red, white, and blue, the safe, serene Big Horn country of Lind’s youth exists only in his memory — and in the dreams that fuel the hard work of the council.
The day I left Sheridan, heading east toward Gillette through the heart of gas and oil country, I flipped on the radio and heard President Bush telling us that he had ordered bombs dropped on Afghanistan. It was a Sunday; I had some time off. Listening to Bush, looking around at the lonely plains dotted by the occasional bobbing rig, I longed to be home with my family, absorbing this news together. But home was far away, so I headed for the Black Hills, where I knew I could at least see some trees. For better or for worse, the trees know nothing about gas drilling in Wyoming; or about Dick Cheney; or about war.