A frigid day in early December, and the next megaload was headed north. Moving at walking speed, it would lumber through Choteau, Montana, population 1,700, in the dead of night, carrying heavy oil-drilling equipment to the Canadian tar sands. Even by megaload standards, this one was a monster: 376 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 18 high. It had already been shipped from South Korea to Umatilla, Oregon, on the Columbia River, before winding its way along the Lewis and Clark Trail through Idaho and western Montana, branching onto State Highway 200 through the beautiful valley of the Blackfoot—made famous by Norman Maclean’s fly-fishing novella, A River Runs Through It—and then hitting Route 287 about 40 miles south of Choteau and heading north up the Rocky Mountain Front.
It was hard to imagine how the driver of a vehicle half again as long as a New York City block proposed to navigate the hairpin turn around the handsome 1906 cut-stone Teton County courthouse, where a Nativity scene had just been erected on the front lawn. But assuming he managed it, he would then steer his load up Choteau’s main street, insulated in his heated cab against the glacial cold, past the two dinosaur statues and the ice cream parlor and the tiny art deco Roxy Theater (which, appropriately enough, was screening a movie called Frozen), past Grizzly Sports and the Elk Country Grill, until he could pick up his pace again on the outskirts of town.
From there he would angle away from the jagged peaks of the Front, taking a hard right across the Blackfeet Reservation and then passing two giant wind farms and the new transmission line that carries their power to markets hundreds of miles away. Finally reaching the interstate, he would cross the tracks of the BNSF railroad, whose mile-long unit trains are carrying ever-larger consignments of oil from the booming Bakken field of North Dakota and eastern Montana to refineries on the West Coast, before presenting his paperwork at the Canadian border near the sacred Sweet Grass Hills and finally arriving, 500 miles farther on, at his destination in the devastated boreal forests of central Alberta.
Oil fields and oil trains, fracking rigs and megaloads, wind farms and power lines: Montana is being steadily redefined as a nodal point in our “all of the above” energy boom. Eager for tax revenues to boost a fragile local economy, some people in Choteau would like to see the drill rigs move into the pristine lands along the Front. Others—ranchers, hunters, and backcountry outfitters for the most part—have spent years fighting to keep the fossil fuel industry away from the Front’s vast national forests and federally protected wilderness. Seventy miles north, in Browning, the hub of the Blackfeet country, sentiments are similarly divided. Crushed by poverty and struggling with 70 percent unemployment, the tribe has leased almost the whole of its 3,000-square-mile reservation to oil companies, right up to the edge of Glacier National Park. Many tribal leaders crave the potential flow of royalties from the oil wells. Others felt that way until they were spooked by the recent arrival of hydraulic fracturing and its attendant risks. Others still would prefer to harness the power of the winds that howl down from the Canadian prairie.
What is happening along the Rocky Mountain Front, in other words, is what happens whenever big energy arrives in small places. It offers a devil’s bargain: a choice between the lure of prosperity and the preservation of place. It pits neighbor against neighbor, family against family, and whatever the eventual outcome, a lot of people are probably going to be unhappy.
* * *
Dan Lindseth is the joint owner of a company called Montana Overthrust Management. As that name implies, the story of the Front is rooted in geology, which shapes our social and economic affairs as surely as chemistry and biology determine our physical existence. More than 80 million years ago, islands as large as Japan slammed into what is now North America, corrugating the earth’s crust, pushing and compressing a layer cake of rock 300 miles long and four miles thick into present-day Montana and Alberta. All this compression and folding and faulting built up what geologists call an imbricate thrust system, in which the strata are piled up on one another, overlapping like scales on a fish. In some places, oddly, the oldest rocks have ended up on top, a reversal of the normal geologic order. After the eastward movement of this enormous rock pile ground to a halt, erosion fashioned the mountains into the unique landscape we see today: ragged, windswept peaks and pinnacles, walls and reefs, all cut by canyons and deeply scoured glacial valleys, rising almost perpendicular from the prairie. We call it the Rocky Mountain Front; the Blackfeet call it the Backbone of the World.
Deep beneath the surface, deposits of oil and natural gas lie trapped in folds, cracks, pockets, and reservoirs. Men have been trying to get at this wealth since 1902, when a prospector named Sam Somes found oil near Swiftcurrent Creek, at the edge of what is now Glacier National Park. It has been a story of modest booms and long busts, but it’s the enduring hope of a big play that keeps men like Dan Lindseth in business.
We call it the Rocky Mountain Front; the Blackfeet call it the Backbone of the World.
He and I drove out to Choteau’s miniature airport one morning to meet his partner, Harold Yeager, a cattle rancher with a sideline in equipment maintenance. We found him working on a feed truck, and his workshop was filled with the rich, yeasty smell of half-fermented grain. On the wall of the cozy adjoining office a portrait of a white-haired Indian chief hinted at the two men’s attitude toward federal regulations, which they blame for hindering the pursuit of oil and gas. The accompanying text read: “When told the reason for daylight saving time the Old Indian said, ‘Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket.”
Lindseth and Yeager both grew up in Choteau. While Yeager never left, Lindseth moved away to pursue a career with IBM, returning in 2002 after he retired. Soon after that, he said, a Canadian company, Startech, decided to pursue drilling permits 15 miles or so north of town, exploiting a lease that predated a 1997 moratorium on oil and gas development on public lands along the Front.
“That led to a big scrap with the environmentalists,” Lindseth said. “Lots of folks were adamantly opposed. In the end, the BLM [the federal Bureau of Land Management] said no. I guess they had bigger fish to fry.” This was frustrating to those around Choteau who still recalled the income spikes from earlier mini-booms, he said. “They’d say, gee whiz, I remember I sent my kid to college, or bought a new truck, added another 40 acres. Now they were saying, with kind of a heavy heart, well, that’s probably the last we’ve seen of oil and gas.”
But Lindseth and Yeager reminded their neighbors that leasing mineral rights on privately owned land, right up to the boundaries of these public lands—the Lewis and Clark National Forest, three wilderness areas including the legendary Bob Marshall, and Glacier National Park—was a different matter. “We told them, you can do anything you want on your own property,” Lindseth said. “Drill a hole wherever you like, see what you find. Ranchers here are land-rich but cash-poor, and Teton County could benefit from taxes on oil production. So Harold and I had a couple of beers, talked it over, and said, what if we could find companies to take up those leases?”
The two men went knocking on doors, eventually putting together a package of about 125,000 contiguous leasable acres, enough to attract another Canadian outfit, Primary Petroleum. Primary started drilling in 2008, four wells at first and then, in 2011, nine more, three of which were fracked. The company entered a joint venture with a much bigger player, Los Angeles–based Occidental Petroleum, and expanded its Montana holdings to 370,000 acres, representing a $41 million investment. That may be small potatoes by oil industry standards, but it was enough for Lindseth and Yeager to think they might be on to something big. And some of the strikes seemed highly promising, Yeager said. He reached for an old juice bottle that was sitting on a shelf and unscrewed the cap so that I could savor the sharp reek of the black gunk inside.
But then, at the end of 2012, “Oxy” pulled out. Several of the wells were capped after failing to produce commercially viable quantities of oil, and that seemed to be that—again. But Lindseth is an optimist by nature. “We’ve done the most comprehensive exploration that’s ever been done along the Front,” he said. “We have a boatload of good new data for this whole area, thousands of acres of 3-D seismic work.” So perhaps this time would be different.
* * *
Later, as we drove out into the backcountry toward the mountains, there were few signs of human life other than an isolated Hutterite farm colony and a cold war–era Minuteman nuclear missile silo, where some soldiers had piled out of a Humvee and appeared to be engaged in some kind of inspection. We saw capped wells and reclaimed wells and one working well with a nodding pump jack, a row of storage tanks, and a cluster of low buildings. “When a well like this is active,” Lindseth said, “you’ll have six guys working 12-hour shifts. They build a little home out here; one guy even put in a hot tub.”
He was keen for me to appreciate the limited environmental footprint of the drilling operations, and it was true that several of the wells were set in dips and coulees, miles back from the Front and fairly inconspicuous. “We live in a pretty nice place here, and I guess it’s obvious we don’t want to ruin it,” he said. But another way of looking at the modest scale of the enterprise, I suggested, was that the bonanza they’d hoped for hadn’t really materialized.
Well, Lindseth acknowledged, this was technically part of the Bakken formation, but while the oil deposits were closer to the surface than in the eastern part of the state and North Dakota, the geology was problematic. “It’s just difficult to get it out of these rocks,” he said. “Up to Highway 89 it’s all prairie soils, but you go four or five miles west and you start hitting the overthrust, and it’s much harder to drill.”
Outside the tiny, half-abandoned town of Bynum we passed a hangar-like building surrounded by cranes, shipping containers, and modular metal frames twice the size of semi-trailers. As Lindseth explained what was going on here, it was clear that being at the crossroads of an oil boom involved more than the presence of a few modestly productive drill rigs. Two companies had set up shop in Bynum recently, he told me, one from Texas, the other from Mississippi. Their purpose was to construct giant drilling equipment for the tar sands. After all, why import it from Asia when you could build it right here, close to the Canadian border? The problem, he said, was that the companies, having promised to create hundreds of well-paying local jobs, were stymied by the delays in building the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Absent that, he said, the big producers in Canada were skittish about signing too many contracts for future megaloads.
As we drove west toward the Teton Canyon, the mood—Harold Yeager’s in particular—seemed to sour. This was more obviously beautiful country than the sere, undulating benchland we’d driven over earlier, and the area around the Yeager ranch was a patchwork of reminders of the intimate scale on which the battle over oil and gas development was being fought here. Ear Mountain, named for its distinctive shape, reared up ahead of us, defining the face of the Front. To the north side of the canyon road was Dusty Crary’s spread—Crary, whom I planned to meet later, being a leader of the fight to keep out the oil companies. A little to the south, next door to Yeager’s property, was the Durr Ranch, now owned by the Nature Conservancy. Nearby was the former home of A. B. “Bud” Guthrie Jr., author of the most famous book ever written about Montana, The Big Sky. Next to that, David Letterman’s Deep Creek Ranch, with its small herd of buffalo.
We reached Yeager’s place at last. As we pulled off the road, he pointed out a low butte to the east. This is famous dinosaur country, and one time, he said, he’d found part of a backbone entombed in a 1,000-pound chunk of rock. “My great-grandad came out here in 1876 and proved up the homestead, but the family wouldn’t join him at first,” he said. “It was the year of Custer’s last stand, and they thought we were still fighting the Indians. Later we had 1,600 head of cattle. Used to do a four-day trail up to the rez, sleeping on the ground, your eyes would be like mud pies in the morning.”
A pugnacious little tan dog sprinted out into the yard to greet us, closely followed by three others. “I need ’em to drive off the bears,” Yeager said. “I had one in the kitchen door and another in the feed shed.” He gestured at the leader of the pack. “Most dogs will just bark at a bear,” he said, “but this female will launch herself straight at it.”
He was visibly upset now. “We never used to have bears here when I was a kid,” he said. “And there are the elk. I mean, everyone likes the elk. But then they start moving into our hay grounds and wheat fields.”
Federal protection of the Front has allowed charismatic species like these to range freely again across the prairie lands and river bottoms, just as they did in the days of Lewis and Clark. When ranchers agreed to conservation easements on their property, that made things worse, Yeager complained. “You read some of the terms of these easements,” he said, “you can’t hardly go out behind the barn to take a leak.” His grumbling expanded to take in the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act and federal regulations in general and wildlife organizations that prowled the streets of New York raising millions of dollars from gullible rich people.
“What’s our biggest problem in this country?” he asked. “Ninety percent of people would say the government.”
And before long, inevitably it seemed, we’d moved on to Obamacare.
* * *
Harold Yeager and Dan Lindseth have been pushing oil and gas development on the Front for a decade, but Gene Sentz has been fighting it for almost four.
I went to visit Sentz at his home in Choteau, a modest house on a quiet street, painted the color of a robin’s egg. Like Lindseth and Yeager, Sentz is in his seventies. He has a dense white beard, a genial manner that disguises a good amount of steely obstinacy, and the remnants of a West Virginia twang. He came to Choteau in 1970 to take a seasonal job as a wilderness ranger. “They gave me a horse and a mule and a map and sent me out there,” he said. He loved it, and stayed. Yet despite living here for close to half a century, working for most of that time as a backcountry horse packer, his background still causes some locals to regard him as an outsider. He did a stint in the Peace Corps, then worked as a schoolteacher. His wife, Linda, is a nurse. They met in Nepal.
Sentz and a local taxidermist named Roy Jacobs, whose father owned the Pioneer Bar in Choteau, started working to protect the Front back in 1977, he told me as we sat at his kitchen table eating our way through a plate of Linda’s homemade cookies. The Forest Service and the BLM were gung ho about developing public lands in those days, he said, and by the early 1980s the oil companies were lined up to do seismic studies of the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall, which is often described as the crown jewel of the American wilderness system. “We called that ‘Bomb the Bob,’” Sentz said.
He and Jacobs were the core of a loose-knit group that called itself the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front. “We’d get together and raise hell and write lots of letters,” Sentz said, and in the end they succeeded in keeping the drillers out of the Bob. But pretty much everything else along the Front was leased, including parts of the Badger-Two Medicine area, a wild and spectacular piece of land that is hedged in between the Continental Divide, Glacier National Park, and the Blackfeet Reservation.
The little group’s efforts proceeded in peaks and dips that tracked the ups and downs of the oil industry until the mid-1990s, when the Forest Service appointed a new supervisor in its Great Falls, Montana, office. Her name was Gloria Flora, and she was a transformative figure, raising the fight over the Rocky Mountain Front to national prominence.
“We didn’t know what to make of her at first,” Sentz said. “We were all saying, wonder who this lady is, she’s a landscape architect, and what do they know about these things? But of course she was the best thing that ever happened to us.” In 1997 Flora placed 350,000 acres of public land along the Front off-limits to development for a decade. The reaction of those who wanted to drill and mine and log public lands has been compared to the response of southerners to civil rights workers in the 1960s. The following year, the Forest Service reassigned Flora to a backwater posting in Nevada, where she lasted only a few months before resigning in protest at what she considered the agency’s spinelessness. After that, she became an outspoken critic of the drill-baby-drill policies of the Bush-Cheney administration.
But would 350,000 acres be enough? That, Sentz said, fast-forwarding, brought us up to 2006, by which time the original nucleus of friends had thrown in with a number of state and national groups to form the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front. At the end of that year, Montana’s Democratic senator, Max Baucus, steered a bill through Congress that barred all new oil, gas, and mineral development on public lands along the Front. Even so, there was little that could be done to protect private land. “Landowners out here on the flats can lease anything they want, and most of them have,” Sentz said. These were your neighbors, it was a fact of life, and you had to accept it.
* * *
At this point in his story, there was a clattering and banging at the door, and a man in a cowboy hat came into the kitchen, stamping snow off his boots.
“Dusty,” Sentz said, “you got here right on time. I was just getting to your part.”
Dusty Crary removed his coat and hat, accepted a cup of coffee from Linda, declined a chaser of Yukon Jack whiskey, and pulled up a chair.
“Did you get your machinery fixed?” Sentz asked him.
“Nah, it’s all tore up,” Crary answered. “But I got my pickup going.”
“Are they still working on your tractor?”
“Oh, he had to go get some parts.”
“Oh, gosh. Well, did you get your critters fed?”
“Yeah, what I needed to. I got my backhoe going, and I got a set of spares I can strap on the front of the backhoe bucket to lift those bales.”
The Crary ranch where all this business was going on had been bought by Dusty’s great-grandfather, a dentist by training, back in 1930. “All he wanted to do was come out to Montana and be a cowboy and hunt and have a ranch,” Crary told me. “So here they lit. But instead of ranching he hung up his shingle and started pulling teeth.” His wife opened the first theater in Choteau. For silent movies, she provided the piano sound track.
Dusty Crary was born in 1960. “My sister and I are the first in the family actually born and raised on the ranch,” he said, “so I guess we’re kind of bastard fourth-generation.” These distinctions matter in Choteau society. “If you’re pre-1900, like the Yeagers,” he said, “that’s a little different, and rightfully so. Those guys had a lot of pride, they came here when it was really tough, and they started from scratch.”
Dusty’s father and Harold Yeager had been “good acquaintances,” he went on, until Doug Crary was slammed against a fence and crushed to death by an angry bull in 1996. After that, the growing dispute over oil and gas and wilderness and wildlife put a strain on relations between the two families—although neighbors are still neighbors, and Yeager’s son, Lane, still helps out sometimes with haying on the Crary ranch.
This kind of local intimacy and shared history, a desire not to do your neighbors harm even when you are at bitter odds, turned out to be a defining aspect of the work that Sentz and Crary have done since 2006. Their goal at that point was to craft a piece of legislation, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, that would permanently preserve as much of the Front as possible—to the degree such things can ever be permanent. Again, Baucus would be the lead sponsor. This surprised a good number of people in Montana, given the senator’s reputation as a staunch defender of agricultural interests. “But I think he also really likes wild country,” Sentz said. “He’s been out here quite a bit, he’s climbed these mountains, he’s hiked in the Bob Marshall and in Glacier.” (And, he might have added, Baucus was only being faithful to the Montana Constitution, which guarantees its citizens “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”)
In late November, just before I got to Choteau, Baucus’s bill sailed through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee without dissent. It annexed 67,000 acres to the Bob and designated another 208,000 as a “conservation management area” open to a limited amount of recreation, motorized use, and grazing. This new protected acreage hadn’t been designed by folks in faraway offices studying GIS imagery, Crary said, but by people sitting around kitchen tables, much as we were doing now, and thrashing it out, acre by acre, drainage by drainage, ranch by ranch, based on an intimate knowledge of the terrain and those who lived there.
“We fought and argued with each other for three years until we finally came up with what we did,” he said. “And the thing I’m most proud of is that virtually everybody who started stayed. We had some core principles from the get-go, and one was that this couldn’t disrupt anyone’s livelihood or way of life. It was never, well, if one guy gets bulldozed that’s for the greater good, and those are the casualties of war, you know?”
Even so, there were those like Harold Yeager who made no secret of their distaste for the bill.
“There’s nothing like the raw power of petroleum, and these things get out of control real fast."
Crary looked pained. “You agree to disagree,” he said. “It’s not for me to judge what someone else gets in spirituality from wild country. No one side is holier than the other. Humans are what humans are, on all sides of the spectrum, and I’ve never yet not learned more and tuned my perspective by listening to people who are polar different than me.”
Did that apply even to fossil fuel development? I asked.
He thought about it. “Harold and Dan,” he said, “I respect their opinions, and I don’t think they’re crazy for wanting oil and gas. I mean, I drive diesel pickups and diesel tractors. But what frightens me is what oil and gas do to these towns, the landscape alteration.”
I said that Yeager and Lindseth seemed to worry about that, too, that they’d talked about the havoc the oil and gas boom had inflicted on the Bakken—the man camps, the sexual assaults, the crystal meth, the methane flares lighting up the night sky, the one-bedroom apartments renting for $2,000 a month. Yeager had described boomtowns like Sidney in eastern Montana as a “cesspool” and said that Choteau wanted no part of it. The town would put the brakes on before that ever happened, Lindseth had added.
Crary shook his head. “I’m sure Harold and Dan don’t want all that to happen, but it won’t be up to them,” he said. “There’s nothing like the raw power of petroleum, and these things get out of control real fast.”
Early next day, I went to Browning to meet Lori New Breast, an outspoken opponent of fracking on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Jeri Lawrence, the tribe’s leading advocate of wind power and until two years ago head of the Blackfeet Renewable Energy Program. The highway edged closer to the Front as I drove north, slicing across the Badger–Two Medicine country, where a bitter lawsuit was under way over a controversial drilling lease. There were 18 inches of fresh snow on the mountains, and the face of the Front was lit rose pink by the morning sun, which was rising in a fireball over the prairie. When I pulled up at the Glacier Peaks Casino, it was 23 below.
New Breast showed up a few minutes late, apologetic. “Couldn’t get my car door open,” she said. “It froze shut.” Then she grinned. “But at least you didn’t get our usual 35-mile-an-hour breeze.”
If one defining feature of this wild landscape is its beauty, the other is wind. Once upon a time, when the Blackfeet were masters of this territory, all the way from the North Saskatchewan River, 300 miles north of the Canadian line, down to Yellowstone Lake, it was said that the wind blew so strong along the Backbone of the World that it could knock a warrior clean out of his saddle. Montana ranks second in the nation (after Texas) in wind energy potential, and nowhere does the wind blow harder than on the reservation. A few years ago, up on Snowslip Mountain, the wind gauge clocked a record gust of 164 miles an hour.
When New Breast arrived, Lawrence and I had already been chatting for a while with Earl Old Person, the 84-year-old chief of the Blackfeet and a 60-year veteran of the tribal council, who had stopped by on his way to a college football game in Missoula, the Montana Grizzlies against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. It was a slow day, he said. Council business was paralyzed by an acrimonious dispute that has dragged on for almost two years now, with personality clashes, charges of financial malfeasance, and a series of controversial suspensions of council members. Old Person said he’d never seen anything like the current dysfunction of the tribal leadership. Back in the 1950s, he told me, he’d acted as interpreter for the elders. “They didn’t speak English, they had no education,” he said. “But they had better sense.”
The casino was closed for the day, he explained, to mark the passing of Dewey Heavy Runner, a respected elder and descendant of the chief whose smallpox-ridden camp on the Marias River was wiped out by the U.S. Second Cavalry in January 1870, on a subzero morning much like this one, leaving 173 dead and putting an end to any further thoughts of resistance to white settlement.
After that came the extermination of the buffalo, the suppression of the Blackfeet language, and the terrible “starvation winter” of 1883–1884, when a chief named Almost-a-Dog kept track of the deaths by cutting notches in a willow stick, until he reached 555 and ran out of space. In exchange for these privations, the Blackfeet were instructed in the raising of beef cattle, encouraged to plant vegetable gardens, and taught their ABCs. Since the white man arrived, in other words, they have rarely been the architects of their own choices.
Oil companies have been in and out of the rez for decades, but it’s always been a tale of boomlet and bust, as it has along the rest of the Front. Old Person told me a story that was emblematic of this cycle, about a famous strike in the 1950s at a well that had been leased from 87-year-old Otter Woman Morning Gun. “That was a big celebration,” he said. “The old lady busted out champagne over the rig and all. But it only lasted a couple of weeks, and then nothing else happened.”
It turned out that New Breast was one of the heirs to the Morning Gun site. A new well pad was being laid there, she said, and I saw it later, tucked away behind a low ridge west of town. She’d refused to sign a new lease on the property, but she’d been in the minority. While she was no fan of the oil and gas industry, she said she understood the economic pressures that drove people into its embrace. “My great-grandmother used to say, don’t blame no one,” she said. “Some of my relatives barely have enough for gas money and food. Come and sign; here’s a $20 bill. And around here a $20 bill is a lot of money.”
By 2010 the royalties from oil had begun to flow again. Three companies—Denver-based Anschutz and two Texas outfits, Newfield and Rosetta—had leased almost every acre of the reservation. The Newfield and Rosetta leases alone had brought in $22 million, I was told later by Roger “Sassy” Running Crane, who had negotiated the deals as the tribe’s chairman of economic development. But then, last March, Anschutz pulled out of all but five of its wells (one of which was on the Morning Gun site). The company issued a rather delphic statement, saying only that the yield was not enough to justify continued investment. Dan Lindseth, back in Choteau, surmised that Anschutz, like others before it, had been stymied by the difficult geology. These folded rocks were just too tough to drill.
Despite their limited scale, the fracking operations had unnerved a lot of people on the reservation. They worried especially about the safety of their water. That refrain is echoed in every fracking field in the country, but here there was a difference: water is sacred.
In Browning there were all sorts of alarming rumors about the technology, New Breast said, but no one had ever explained it clearly to people—no one, that is, except the oil companies themselves. “I went to a meeting at the federal building with this oil and gas dude from Denver,” she said—which I assumed meant from Anschutz. “He looks like he’s stepped out of an L. L. Bean catalog and he puts on what I call the cartoon about fracking, kind of an animated Bugs Bunny explanation. It’s s-o-o-o safe, he says.” She snorted.
In 2012 New Breast and a number of friends formed a group they called Blackfeet Women Against Fracking. They went on a 100-mile “water walk” to dramatize what they saw as a threat to sacred sites, used social media to broadcast their skepticism, scrutinized the small print of new oil and gas leases, and urged people to watch the documentary Gasland, with its startling images of tap water catching fire in Colorado.
Fracking to her was the perfect expression of a deep cultural divide. “In our Indian way of thinking, everything is equal, the earth is a living thing,” she said. “In the other way, the earth is our unending grocery store. When I hear about fracking, I say, oh my God, what’s going to happen to the berries or the earth medicines that I gather? I’m scared now to go and collect anything on the Little Badger [River], west of the fracking sites. I cannot vouch for these things. And what happens here is felt all over the earth. The headwaters move from here, the birds move from here, the seeds move from here, the wind moves from here.”
* * *
Jeri lawrence, a soft-spoken younger woman of Blackfeet and Assiniboine descent, joined the conversation when it turned to wind. Her language was a little different from New Breast’s—she went to Central Washington University on a Native American scholarship, graduating with a master’s degree in resource management, and spoke in terms of megawatts and business plans—but her concerns were very similar. The wind farms she’d hoped to build on the reservation had to be subject to the same scrutiny as the oil wells. Were they safe? Did they infringe on sacred sites and treasured landscapes? She worried particularly about birds and told me that several of the turbines at the big Rim Rock wind farm, just off the eastern edge of the reservation, had been moved out of concern for nesting raptors. “We hold eagles to be especially sacred,” she said.
Whatever the energy source, the two women agreed, the community should have to give its informed consent. “We’re not living in the 1870s anymore,” New Breast said.
The Blackfeet have understood the potential of wind energy since the 1990s, when they scoped out a site at Duck Lake, north of Browning. Advocates of oil and gas like Running Crane saw no contradiction in embracing the idea, and even as he was bringing in tens of millions of dollars from new oil leases he was also working closely with Lawrence to promote wind power. Anything to generate some much-needed income.
Lawrence started off modestly enough, developing plans for a 25- to 30-megawatt wind farm. (The commonly used formula—“enough to power X thousand homes”—is notoriously difficult to calculate, but such a project might serve about 10,000.) The tribal council took some persuading, but since Lawrence had her core funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, it eventually agreed to donate a site and pay for an anemometer. The average wind speed turned out to be 30 miles per hour, year-round, as good as it gets.
In 2008 Lawrence began negotiations for a second project, with a company she described as “the big gorilla in the game” at the time (she declined to identify it, citing a nondisclosure agreement). This project would dwarf anything the Blackfeet had ever attempted: a wind farm producing as much as 1,000 megawatts, to be built in stages on multiple sites. If it had materialized, it might have been the biggest wind farm in the nation. “We had it all down,” Lawrence said, “the spreadsheets, the money worked out to the penny, the amount we would get.” But then the problems began, because pushing renewable energy in a place like this is easier said than done.
What went wrong? Politics, for starters, said Running Crane. When the idea went before the tribal council, “it all went to hell.” As the national wind boom gathered momentum, other companies came sniffing around. Could one of them offer a better deal? the council asked. Maybe Lawrence should shop around. The council dithered. Time passed.
The second problem was getting the energy to market. This dilemma is not unique to Montana: the places where the wind blows hardest are often far away from prospective customers. And getting from here to there, with a national power grid that might charitably be described as ramshackle and balkanized, means building new power lines, which can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Lawrence’s big gorilla was in a position to finance such a project; the tribe’s other potential partners weren’t.
Meanwhile, two things happened. One of the likeliest purchasers of wind power from Montana had been California, with its ambitious mandate to obtain one-third of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. But then, in 2011, California changed its rules, stipulating that three-quarters of this energy had to come from in-state sources. Meanwhile, Rim Rock and the nearby Glacier I and II came online, both off the rez and unencumbered by tribal politics. Together, these wind farms could generate almost 400 megawatts, more than the entire capacity of a new 214-mile-long transmission line that would carry electricity out of state. The Blackfeet wind initiative withered on the vine, and Jeri Lawrence took a new job with the tribal historic preservation office.
Like the oil leases that Dan Lindseth and Harold Yeager had promoted, the Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) depended on the goodwill of private landowners whose property would be affected by a power line snaking across their fields. But not all of these farmers and ranchers were thrilled at the prospect. Many resented the idea that a foreign company, the Canadian energy giant Enbridge (aided by federal stimulus dollars, just to add insult to injury), should be granted the power of eminent domain in the United States.
MATL was mired for two years in legislative and courtroom battles. Local environmentalists were of two minds about power lines in Big Sky country. Some saw climate change as an existential issue; the need for renewables trumped other concerns. Others were joined on the barricades by the strangest of bedfellows. Perhaps the most determined holdout against Enbridge was Larry Salois, a Cree and a vocal supporter of wind energy, who nonetheless fought to keep the power line away from the ancient tepee rings on his property with the help of an aggressively libertarian property rights lawyer. But eventually the juice from Rim Rock and Glacier I and II began to flow. And in the most painful of ironies, most of it was destined not for arid San Diego or Phoenix. Instead it would go across the border to Alberta. And why does Alberta need all this extra energy? Largely to feed the economic monster created by the province’s tar sands boom.
* * *
In Choteau, Linda Sentz had told me a story about her husband. “Gene was up on Ear Mountain one time, and he spent the night there,” she said. “You could look out and see all these flashing red lights from the [Glacier] wind farm. I suppose there is a certain beauty, but…”
“When people complain about fossil fuels, I say the solution is for all these farmers to grow wind turbines,” Gene joked. Then he paused. “But I don’t want them up and down along the Front. Out by the interstate, well, I guess I can live with that.”
The story echoed things that others had said. Look at this, Dan Lindseth had appealed to me, waving a hand at the distant mountains. Do you think we want to change it? Landscape alteration, said Dusty Crary; that was the thing he feared most. In the end, what defined the essence of the Front to everyone here was what it looked like, the extraordinary beauty of the place.
You can pass laws in Congress to protect roadless areas and sensitive habitat. You can use the Clean Water Act to address the contamination of water by fracking wells. But how do you protect something as intangible and subjective as beauty—even from something as desirable as a wind turbine? (See "Energy in the Eye of the Beholder.")
How do you protect something as intangible and subjective as beauty—even from something as desirable as a wind turbine?
I’d first seen the new Glacier wind farms a couple of summers ago, and Linda was right: there was a regal beauty to all those turbines striding across the flat golden miles of wheat. I liked the idea of power lines flanking the interstate, carrying clean energy to distant cities. And the view of the Front was intact. Glacier was at least 40 miles away, and the mountains were barely visible on the horizon. But now another new wind farm, which would have some of the tallest turbines in the nation, was under construction in the bleak little town of Fairfield, which bills itself as the Malting Barley Capital of the World. This one was a bit closer, maybe 30 miles off the face of the Front. It made me wonder, how close was too close? Twenty miles? Ten? Five? And though I found no moral equivalence between a wind turbine and a fracking rig, how many oil wells would it take to wreck the view? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred? I posed these questions to everyone I met, and no one quite knew where to draw the line.
On my last morning in Montana, the temperature had bottomed out at 36 below, and warmer air was moving in. A leaden snow sky was beginning to close in on the sawtooth silhouette of the Front as I struck out along a twisting dirt road into the foothills, orienting myself by the dark patches of gravel that showed through the ice. The snow began to fall, lightly at first and then in a denser curtain. It gradually erased the fence lines, then the few scattered Black Angus huddled on the farther hillsides, until all that was left was a blurred suggestion of the mountains, pale gray on white.
The landscape was silent, primordial, glorious, and a little frightening. No power lines, no turbines, no oil wells, a land that Blackfeet and grizzlies had shared and seen this way for millennia, and I felt, all things considered, that because of the passion of environmentalists and the challenges of geology there was a decent chance it would stay that way. Gene Sentz and Dusty Crary would be happy; Dan Lindseth and Harold Yeager would be frustrated. If anyone had conflicted emotions, as the oil companies came and went and the wind farms kept their distance, it would probably be the Blackfeet, who would be left, as they have been for a century and half, to weigh the meaning of their mountains and berries and earth medicines against the value of a $20 bill.
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