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Thunderstorm in late August

Bryce Andrews | Sep 02, 2009 04:44 AM


It slid into the Deer Lodge Valley, like twilight come too soon. When the storm first crossed the horizon I was up on the National Forest, rattling the four-wheeler along a rough two-track road that climbed through a series of meadows toward the Continental Divide.

Around here, summer storms are mostly predictable. This particular weather system had been touted for days on the radio. I heard about it in the morning on N.P.R., and then later, at lunch, on the country station. The deejays talked numbers: Eighty percent chance of lightning, twenty percent chance of rain.

I listened to the broadcasts, and I watched the world go still and quiet this morning. People talk about the calm before the storm, but this was more than calm: The Deer Lodge valley, which is normally a case study in aridity, filled up with strange, clammy air. A new haze spread through the sky, higher and whiter than the forest fire smoke that had been smudging the mountains for weeks. The weather was weird, in the archaic, darker sense of that word. I don’t know precisely what prehistoric chord was resonating in my gut, but something about the sky began to wear on me. No matter where I went, the air seemed bad. It felt stale, as though I were in a shopping mall or on an airplane instead of working on a ranch under Montana’s vast sky. 

I began to wish for the storm—for rain, thunder and gusting wind. When nothing came I decided to look for respite in the high country. I loaded the four-wheeler with fifty-pound blocks of salt, told my dog, Tick, to jump up on the back, and roared uphill.

Dry Cottonwood Road heads east from the barn. It follows the twists and turns of Dry Cottonwood Creek—roughly at first, and then more precisely as stream and thoroughfare are jammed together in a steep canyon. As the gradient increased, the four-wheeler bounced over a series of deep ruts in the surface of the road.

Dry Cottonwood was the sort of drainage that remembers a hard spring rain. In almost every steep spot, the coarse granitic sand of the road had washed away and sloughed downhill into huge, fan-shaped piles. In more than a few places, these deltas reached the creek and choked it up with silt.

Out of the canyon and into the forest. I turned south at the junction, leaving the creek behind to contour around a hill toward the center of the Sand Hollow Pasture. What we call Sand Hollow is a six square mile chunk of the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest. It’s one of four massive pastures that make up the Dry Cottonwood Creek Grazing Allotment, which we share with three other ranches.

I spend a lot of time up here, certainly more than the other permitees, and probably more than the rider we hire to look after the cattle. I chase cows away from the delicate areas around creeks and set out salt to draw them toward the high, grassy parks on the south faces of these hills.

Today, I drove up to a stock tank at a place that we call Barrel Springs. The cattle were loitering there, standing indolently by the tank with mouthfuls of cud. I let Tick off the four-wheeler and supervised as he rousted out the cows and calves. Working together, we moved them up an old, steep set of wheel ruts toward fresh pasture. 

We didn’t have to go far. A half-mile’s climb brought us to untouched grass. I settled the cattle there, dropped a couple blocks of salt, and called my dog. I paused at the top of the meadow, looked west and caught my first glimpse of thunderheads.

In these mountains there are two ways to react to the arrival of a storm: The first option is to hit the gas, pare your chores down to the bare essentials, and make a run for shelter. The second is to resign yourself to the possibility of lightning and a thorough, icy soaking, and watch the spectacle unfold.

I chose the latter course, and sat on a stump while the clouds swept in. As they darkened the irrigated fields and the ribbon-line of the river it seemed to me that the storm was some kind of harbinger, a hint of what was in store for the Deer Lodge Valley.

This is a landscape on the brink of drastic, sweeping changes. Sometimes, as in the case of the Superfund Cleanup along the Clark Fork River, the change will be planned and gradual. Sometimes, as in this forest full of close-set, beetle-killed trees, it will be sudden, violent and uncontrollable as fire.

From where I sat on the mountain, it was clear that this place had arrived at the tipping point: The Deer Lodge Valley was surrounded on all sides by dying lodgepole pines and bisected by a poisoned river. With the storm sliding across the sky, the valley looked like a ship in a huge wave’s shadow. It seemed inevitable that the wave would break, and soon. As I started the four-wheeler and headed downhill I thought: What matters now is how well we manage to ride it out.

Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at

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HCN Reader Photo: Pronghorns in Montana

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Sep 02, 2009 12:00 AM

This week's reader photo comes from Madrid Miner, who's been posting some lovely shots up on the HCN Flickr group.


You can add your photos to our Flickr group; we pick one a week to feature on our site.

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When a step aside was 'a godsend'

Mark Trahant | Aug 31, 2009 04:15 AM

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy jumped into American Indian issues with zeal after his brother, Bobby, was assassinated. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had used the Indian Education Subcommittee as his platform during his extensive travels across Indian Country with the anti-poverty tour.

A young Ted Kennedy wrote in Look Magazine that RFK “saw, as I have seen, the resilience of the Indian way of life, a way of life that has for many generations resisted destruction despite government blunders that almost seem designed to stamp it out.”

In October 1969 Kennedy attended the National Congress of American Indians meeting in Albuquerque and called for the establishment of Select Committee on Human Needs of the American Indians in the U.S. Senate. The young senator blasted away at the Nixon administration. “We need no more presidential task forces. We need no more buck passing; we know where the blame lies,” the Albuquerque Journal quoted him telling the delegates. “We need no more empty promises; we know they are empty.”

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Still Trout Fishing in America

Michael Wolcott | Aug 28, 2009 07:27 AM

I catch fish with my hands. In the Wyoming Rockies, where I have spent my best summers, the high meadow streams are thick with brookies, cutthroats and rainbows. I hide behind willows and boulders, spying, greedy to catch, kill and eat them.
The fish hang suspended in liquid moments then shear off like startled birds, crowding the shallow meanders, hiding beneath the undercut banks. I kneel, slip my hands into the streaming snowmelt, and wait. The water is icy, but the waiting is important. I ease my hands toward the hiding place, fingers splayed, until I feel the first brush of the trout’s life against my own—the liquid silk of its skin, the bony head, the muscled curve of its body.
Fins and tail flutter against my outstretched hands. The twists and turns grow frantic. I tighten my grip until the trout runs out of room, then slam it against a rock. The pectoral fins give me something, but not much, to hang on to. I probe with numb fingers, finding a grip behind the gill flap. The trout flogs itself against my hand until it lapses into a spasm that tells me I’ve won.
This is not sport fishing. It may not even be legal, but I don’t care. I’m comfortable with how I fish, and why. This practice takes me back to a moment I need to remember:


It is October, 1974. I have hitchhiked away from the wreckage of my freshman year at an Eastern college to see the Rocky Mountains. After the predictably stoned and desultory road trip, I wander for five days along the Continental Divide alone, with no map and no clue, pretending to be Jim Bridger. My Day-Glo backpack contains a Sterno stove and a Boy Scout mess kit. A dull buck knife rides in a leather sheath on my hip.
Days unfold, sun-splashed and dreamlike. I walk the trails, putting distance between myself and the ivy-strangled campus, the lost scholarships, the shamed telephone calls home. I step around steaming piles of bear scat and scramble on granite boulders stamped with hieroglyphs of orange and green lichen. At sundown, purple shadows slide off the ridges. Dense cold air fills the glacial basins. The night is full of stars and possibility.
I wake one day in a frosted meadow to a sound I’ve never heard and could not have imagined—a shrill, compressed whistle so urgent, so full of longing, that it presses against my chest. When I see the elk straining against its own desire, neck muscles bulging, I know that I am where I belong.
When the food runs low, I wonder how quickly I can get to town and back, how much oatmeal and peanut butter I can buy with my last six dollars. I wonder if I could live like a shaman, on sunlight and mountain water. I do not consider how I will feed myself on the trip back East.
I walk up a tiny stream in the Indian summer afternon, boots scraping rock, spooking pan-sized trout. I wish for a hook and line. When a brook trout grounds itself on a gravel bar, I realize that I don’t
need fishing gear. I build two rock dams, take off my shirt, and start catching dinner with my hands. I’m completely happy, doing what boys always say they will do someday: I am living off the land.
But boiled trout tastes a lot like hot water. You can only eat so much of it, even when you’re 18 and on a magic journey. I hiked out of the mountains two days later, spent the last of my money on a giant breakfast at Howard Johnson’s, walked up an east-bound entrance ramp and stuck out my thumb. I was broke, filthy, and returning to the scene of my first failure. As I hitched toward the gray Northeast, I vowed to come back, and soon. I would learn the edible plants and live in the mountains, maybe year-round.
Back in my hometown, I bragged up the mountains to my buddies as we passed around the bong. I was going back, I said, but could never seem to get it together.  It would be 12 years before my next trip west—a vacation from a Manhattan desk job—and another five years before I finally moved here. The tingle of that afternoon stayed with me, though. There would not be a day in all those years that that I didn’t think about the Rockies.
In New York I would sometimes sit on a basalt outcrop in Riverside Park with a paper cup of coffee, staring across the West Side Highway and the Hudson River at sunset, past New Jersey all the way to the Continental Divide, where the streams were full of treasure. Trout swam in my dreams, or flew.
I didn’t fish in the east, though. There were trout in the Adirondacks, where I spent my outdoor time, but it wasn’t the same. The humid closeness of that country always left me longing for what I had touched briefly in the Rockies.
The human population out here has doubled since I first caught trout with my hands, and the place was feeling the crunch even then. For a time, though, I was innocent enough to believe that the spoiled world could be left behind. The newness of the West would free me from history—my country’s, and my own.
I was ignorant of natural history, too. I didn’t know, for example, that the brook trout I caught with my hands were transplants, an Eastern species that outcompetes native cutthroats in the West. To me, the trout were merely beautiful. They promised a meal in the mountains—a meal of the mountains—and so gave me the purest kind of joy. Somehow, contrary to all that I know and can never unlearn, they still do.

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It’s a great job (except for the benefits)

Mark Trahant | Aug 24, 2009 05:56 AM

I’m reading a job announcement for a great gig. It pays $15 an hour. Flexible hours. Important work – and it’s classified as “long-term temporary.” That’s another way of saying: no benefits.

In a country that has opted for an “employer-based” health care system this should be the smoking gun; primary evidence that it’s a mistake to tie health insurance to our work.

But under health care reform there would be an employer mandate and the company that put out the job announcement would be required to offer insurance or pay a fine. Right? Wrong. The letterhead on the job announcement says: U.S. Census Bureau. The same government that demands employers offer health care tells its own workers simply, “no benefits.” This is not uncommon in either government or in the private sector. Some 12 percent of the work force is classified as part time and employers design jobs keeping in mind a rigorous enforcement of that 30-hour work week. A few employers do provide benefits to part time employees, but there are also people who work two or more part time jobs without benefits.

Here is the strange part: What would happen to this Census worker with the health care bills that require individuals to purchase insurance? The United States would have to write a subsidy check for the individual it has hired on the cheap in order to save money on benefits.

The individual mandate has been called the common thread in all of the health care reform proposals before Congress. 

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Huge Chunks of Land, Changing Hands

Lissa James | Aug 21, 2009 08:55 AM

The collapse of the housing industry hasn’t been good to log prices. According to a report (pdf) published in June by Northwest Farm Credit Services, log prices are as low as they were in the 1980s and can barely cover the cost of logging. Across the Northwest, timber companies are delaying harvests and mills have either stopped buying logs or put log producers on quotas.

With the prices of both logs and real estate in the gutter, it seems reasonable to think that the price of timberland would follow suit. But according to the NFCS report, forestland prices have been “disconnected” from log prices, and are holding steady despite the recession. And that’s great news for Weyerhaeuser, which, in the past year, has sold thousands of acres of Oregon and Washington forestland. The Associated Press reported

in July that Weyerhaeuser beat Wall Street earnings expectations by selling off “non-strategic timberland.” By “non-strategic,” company officials mean pine and hemlock forests, as opposed to the more profitable Douglas fir forests.

On August 14, the company announced that it had a $300 million deal to sell 140,000 acres in northwestern Oregon to an international timber investment management organization, or TIMO, called The Campbell Group. Weyerhaeuser spokesmen have also hinted that they may sell up to 82,000 additional acres in Washington. (Find detailed lists and prices here here ).

Unlike an old-fashioned timber company, which owns mills and other timber-based infrastructure and cares what happens to them, TIMOs aren’t invested in the local community and will do whatever needs to be done to get the best return on their investment. TIMO “capital is more flighty,” Bettina von Hagen of Ecotrust told the Daily Astorian. “It can go anywhere. It doesn't have to stay in the community."

Mark Twain famously suggested that we should “buy land, because they aren’t making any more of it.” As we learned earlier this year, applying this logic to overpriced spec houses leads to disaster. When it comes to houses, we can indeed make more. The same can’t be said for thousand-acre tracks of unbroken forestland, and TIMO ownership makes converting forestland to “highest and best use” easier, if not inevitable.

Lissa James lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works for a timber and oyster company. She's also an occasional contributor to High Country News. Her most recent HCN story can be read here.




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This Week's HCN Reader Photo

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Aug 21, 2009 04:06 AM

This week’s reader photo comes from Flickr contributor T. R. Baker, and features Nevada, in black and white.

New Classic West


You can add your photos to HCN’s Flickr photo pool. We’ll pick one to feature each week on our Web site. Don’t forget to tag them “highcountrynews.”  You can also check out last week’s selected reader photo here.

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Birdwatching in the desert

Michael Wolcott | Aug 21, 2009 03:09 AM

Lightning flares in the bruised afternoon sky over the Arizona-New Mexico line. Wind scrapes across the grey-green flats from the west, flinging a fistful of gray birds through the air. Purple rags of cloud stream ahead of the storm.
A chill strikes the desert. Thunder claps.  I take cover under the overhung cut bank of a deep wash. Mesquite roots claw at the air where the bank has collapsed. I crouch with my back against the earth, staring at the weather. I have never been here. I am home.
I will probably never see this patch of ground again. Habit brings me to such places. Season after season I fill a backpack and walk, grazing the thin pasture of the desert. I never know what I'm looking for till I find it. This morning it was a pale blue trailer out on the flats a mile west of U.S. Highway 70, not far from where I sit. Abandoned trailers always seduce me.

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Seeing the Forest for the... Wildlife?

Cat Lazaroff | Aug 20, 2009 08:21 AM

While Americans love animals—half the nation are pet owners and billions of dollars are spent on wildlife and bird watching each year — our animal affinity seems to wear a little thin when it comes to nitty-gritty policy debate.

But policy is what allows forests to be clear cut and hazardous mining runoff  to end up in streams and rivers. It’s not until the land in our backyards is leveled or a species is pushed to the brink of extinction or until the world becomes a gigantic furnace that we make a ruckus about policy.

Perhaps that’s why a court ruling (pdf) received so little fanfare. The rejected regulations would have turned forest-planning standards (including protections for wildlife on 193 million acres of public lands) into virtually meaningless suggestions, making it easier for industry to log, mine and drill national forests with little to no regard for impacts on the land.

On Friday, the Obama administration decided not to appeal the court’s decision. It’s a bold move that deserves some recognition. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has charted a new course for our nation’s forests — focusing on protecting water supplies and helping forests survive the ravages of global warming.

This is good news for wildlife. Secretary Vilsack has reaffirmed the important stewardship role that the Forest Service has in helping wildlife and other natural resources adapt to a changing climate.

And while the Obama administration ponders its next moves, some members of Congress have already put forth one great idea. A bill called America’s Wildlife Heritage Act would ensure that wildlife is always taken into consideration, not only on our national forests but also on the Bureau of Land Management’s National System of Public lands. Smart policy and balanced management like this will help to keep this nation of animal lovers happy.

Cat Lazaroff is the Director of Communications for Defenders of Wildlife, a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come.  For more information, visit


The health care debate comes home

Felice Pace | Aug 20, 2009 04:20 AM

If you pay attention at all to the network news, you’re no doubt aware of controversy surrounding August Recess town hall meetings which Members of Congress have been conducting in their districts.  The news reports I’ve seen show folks making angry accusations and claiming that aspects of health care bills which have been moving forward in the House of Representatives will usher in an age of draconian government control, socialism and euthanasia. From the repetition and other evidence it is clear that these folks are being organized by Republican operatives and encouraged by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

I decided I’d like to attend one of these meetings to see for myself what is going on and maybe even to challenge some of the anti-reform folks if they disrupted the meeting. Like most of the West’s rural areas, the Klamath Mountains of Northwest California and Southwest Oregon are home to active, anti-government and anti-environmental sentiment. Grassroots organizations focus this sentiment in opposition to environmental protection and government regulation. I wanted to see if these folks would come out on the health care issue and I wanted to make sure those like me who favor a single payer system would be heard.

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