LINCOLN, Mont. - When you ask Lee Pattison whether she thinks a mammoth gold mine will be built a few miles from here, she looks out the window of her small cabin and tells a story: On a golden day last summer, a miner named KD Feeback stood in her living room, looked the group of assembled locals in the eye, and terrified them.
According to Pattison, he told
them that the end of the world, or at least their world - Montana -
was nigh. Environmentalists were sponsoring a statewide clean-water
initiative that would not only eliminate his mining job, he said,
but also could make it illegal for a cow to make a cow pie. Put
simply, he warned them, mining and ranching could be shut
It was one of hundreds of such meetings
that took place in Montana living rooms, county fairgrounds and
town halls during the summer and early fall of 1996. At some
meetings, miners warned car mechanics that they could be fined for
oily runoff; at others, they told hairdressers that they could no
longer be able to wash chemicals down the drain. Mostly they
focused on agriculture, particularly ranching.
Every meeting spread the same message: You are next; the
clean-water initiative that environmentalists claim will prevent
pollution of streams will destroy Montana's economy. It will start
with mining, and then move on to other
On election day, the campaign,
reinforced by deafening advertising, bore fruit. The clean-water
initiative lost 57 percent to 43 percent. Less than 30 years after
foundering economics and a wave of reform had crippled the mining
industry here in the Treasure State, mining rose triumphant as a
In most states, a single initiative
wouldn't shake things up. But Montana's population is sparse - the
same number as in San Francisco spread over a state nearly as large
as California. And its economic base is spare: It sells timber,
minerals, wheat and beauty. Because it is not diversified and has
little wealth that does not come out of the ground, the state is
forced to make painful choices about how much environmental
protection it can afford.
Will a mine run through it?
Montana is about to
make another such choice. A company wants to build a gargantuan
open-pit mine, the McDonald Mine, at the headwaters of what might
be the state's most picturesque, most beloved river - the
Blackfoot. The tradeoff: nearly 4 million ounces of gold in
exchange for the health of the river.
want to glimpse the Blackfoot's possible fate, look at the Milltown
Dam at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. Most
dams hold back water; this dam prevents 6.6 million cubic yards of
toxic sediment from flowing through Missoula. Water containing
heavy metals from Butte's slag heaps and open pits seeps through
the ground to creeks that feed the Clark Fork River. During heavy
rains, this river is less potable than raw sewage; it carries
arsenic, manganese, lead, copper and zinc for 36 miles, making it
part of the nation's largest Superfund site.
state agencies will ultimately determine whether gold near the
Blackfoot River is worth these risks. The Department of
Environmental Quality will supervise, review and decide on the
mining plan. Then the five-member state land board - the governor,
the state auditor, the superintendent of schools, the secretary of
state, and the attorney general - will decide whether to lease the
land to the company. The board will base its decision only partly
on the mining plan.
"Elected officials will
consider the politics of the situation," says state auditor and
land board member Mark O'Keefe. "Anyone who tells you they aren't
is lying through their teeth."
This leaves the
mine's supporters and detractors vying to shape public opinion. The
governor has called this a holy war, and although the weapons of
television, bumper stickers and ballot boxes are not lethal, the
metaphor is apt: It's the religion of the river vs. the sacredness
of the mining industry.
Among the mine's
opponents are environmentalists in the college town of Missoula,
who ceaselessly file lawsuits and employ science to prove to the
land board that this mine will be dangerous. At the same time, a
band of longtime residents is attempting to prove to the land board
that it is politically safe to reject the
"Politicians can find a
way to say "no" if given the right ammunition," says former rancher
Land Lindbergh, who lives along the Blackfoot River. "They have to
feel like most people don't want it."
opponents are successful, the Montana mining industry may
ultimately be tamed by, of all things, a bunch of ranchers and
retirees. But they are the underdogs. Judging by the 1996 election,
a voting majority of Montanans believes not only that mining jobs
are desirable, but that what's good for mining is also good for
Mining in Montana wasn't always under
attack. For nearly 70 years, the state was literally run out of the
New York City boardroom of the Anaconda Co.
Company, as it was called due to its string of names and owners,
owned most of Montana's mines, not to mention its hotels, logging
operations and newspapers. When it closed its operations in 1903 to
blackmail state judges into squelching its competition, nearly 80
percent of the wage earners in the state suddenly lost their jobs.
The judges backed down.
In 1919, Louis Levine,
an economics professor at the University of Montana, called for
reforms in Montana tax structure; mining companies produced nearly
half of the gross product but paid only 8 percent of state taxes.
The university promptly fired him.
applied the same heavy hand to its workers. If a union threatened
to strike, the Company would close the mine until the workers
surrendered. It used Pinkerton detectives and spies to divide the
unions. This last strategy worked so well that in 1914 union
factions rioted against each other at Butte's Miner's Union Hall,
reducing it to rubble.
Such tactics paid off. In
the 1890s, the Butte-Anaconda area was producing more minerals than
anywhere else in the country. By 1914, Anaconda was the world's
largest copper producer.
In the 1950s, the
Company began to loosen its grip. At first it did this willingly.
When Anaconda diversified into overseas ore, it felt less need to
control every aspect of Montana. In 1959, it sold its interest in
almost every state newspaper.
By 1971, most of
the Company's assets were tied up in Chilean ore, and when Salvador
Allende won the presidency and nationalized the mines, the
Company's market value dropped from $1.4 billion to $260 million.
It closed mines and laid off thousands of workers in Montana.
Anaconda could no longer run itself, much less a
By this time, proof that mining had
written its own rules for a century scarred the state. Some of the
damage to streams, forests and soil dated back 100 years. But some
of the wounds were fresh.
skillfully linked these two crises, showing how Anaconda had
destroyed both Montana's economy and environment. Jim Murry, who
led the then-mighty state AFL-CIO for 23 years, built a coalition
between labor and the burgeoning environmental movement. He
reminded workers that they are the first to breathe polluted air
and drink polluted water, and he reminded environmentalists that
workers live in poorer, dirtier neighborhoods.
It worked. In 1972, after a state referendum, elected
representatives wrote the most pro-environmental state constitution
in the country, granting Montana's citizens "the right to a clean
and healthful environment" and full reclamation. Its preamble is an
homage to nature:
people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our
state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling
The new constitution was only one
sign of political change. Coalitions - like the progressive
ranchers of the Northern Plains Resource Council - sprouted all
over the state. "Northern Plains Resource Council is the one
critical reason that Montana did a lot more (on the environment)
than Wyoming," says Dorothy Bradley, who served in the Legislature
from 1971 to 1978, and again from 1985 to 1992. "They are sister
states, they face the same challenges, but (the Council's)
grassroots approach made a huge impact by creating awareness and
broadening the number of spokesmen on the issues."
The 1973 Legislature, the first to meet under
this rewritten constitution, resembled a boisterous college class.
Most legislators were in their early 20s and had little political
experience. As the story goes, no bookstore in Helena could keep
Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure in
"It was the beginning
of people controlling the large corporations instead of the state
being controlled as a colony," says Sen. Hal Harper, who has been
in the state Legislature since 1973.
these years, legislators raised the taxes paid by coal and metal
mines and passed a slew of environmental laws including the Montana
Metal Mine Reclamation Act, the state version of the National
Environmental Policy Act, the Strip and Underground Mine
Reclamation Act, and the Major Facility Siting
"The early "70s were the
golden years. It was terribly exciting. We really were looking at
our (old) laws as the lords of yesterday. They had served a
different era. And this was a new day," says Bradley. "I don't look
back and glorify. It was a lot of hard work. But even when you lost
the debates, it was your best day in court because the quality of
discussions and debates was so elevated."
The end of the revolution
Nearly 25 years later, Harper stands in the rotunda of the state
have been gutted, flushed, washed downstream," he says. "Now
Montana is on a par with Louisiana. It is like watching your
inheritance auctioned off little by little."
Beneath his cowboy boots is a mosaic with the Treasure State's
motto in Spanish: oro y plata. Harper explains that it took little
more than a decade for gold, silver and copper to retake the
What happened? New technology
jump-started Montana's dormant mining economy. The Spokane-based
Pegasus Mining Co. decided in 1979 to try an experiment of epic
significance. What would happen if they took a well-known
alchemist's trick - using cyanide to remove gold from stone - and
boosted the scale a thousand times or so?
find out, the company demolished two peaks in eastern Montana's
Little Rocky Mountains, piled - at a rate of 38 thousand tons per
day - the mountain's innards in a heap, sprinkled this heap with
cyanide, and collected the gold.
two decades of dismembering these mountains, the company has
produced just enough gold to fill a pickup truck. In fact, these
mines are famous for extracting the lowest-grade ore of any mine in
the U.S. - one ounce of gold for every 110,000 pounds of rock. But
aside from moving mountains, overhead is minimal. There are no
underground shafts to build, and only a few hundred employees,
about a tenth of what was needed in the old days. The technology is
called cyanide heap-leach.
In the mid-1980s,
Pegasus opened two more such mines. As gold prices rose to $800 an
ounce, "monster mines," as the press began calling them, appeared
everywhere under the Big Sky. Eight other companies tried their
hand at cyanide heap-leach mining and its close relative, vat-leach
technology. Both methods dig up massive amounts of dirt and rock
and douse them with chemicals to extract gold. In addition to the
damage that mining gold has always wrought, the process adds two
factors: a huge scale of disruption and the possibility of cyanide
leaking into waterways from the leaching
During the past two decades, miners
have extracted more gold nationwide with modern mining techniques
than was produced in the previous century.
technology alone can't drive a gold rush. Given the pollution
generated by the new approach, the mining industry also had to do
something about what it saw as restrictive and cumbersome
environmental laws. So, during each of the every-other-year
sessions of the Legislature in the 1990s, the mining industry
lobbied for laws that would make it easier to permit and run a
mine. The Legislature has enacted them, and the governor has signed
There is no consensus about why the
Legislature shifted so completely in 20 years, but there are
theories. Most people point to the decline of logging and mining
operations, which shut down or became highly mechanized, employing
far fewer people. When the state's decent blue-collar jobs dried
up, nothing took their
"We were decreasing the
high-paying jobs and hadn't created mid-level entrepreneurship.
Instead we have low-level service jobs," says Bradley. This made
Then someone came along who
spoke to the workers' unease. "Ronald Reagan strategically and
consciously ... used race, taxes and an expanding pie of rights
(such as affirmative action) to shake the white, blue-collar
working class out of the Democratic party," says Montana Human
Rights Coalition director Ken Toole.
Thomas Michael Power says that there was no shortage of jobs in the
1970s and 1980s, but the types of jobs changed and the population
changed to match. When the mills and mines closed, throngs of
people abandoned the traditionally Democratic company towns for
work in other states or counties.
At the same
time, new arrivals brought their Powerbooks, modems and fax
machines to the picturesque suburbs being built in the Flathead,
Bitterroot and Gallatin
"These folks are
upscale yuppies, who are instinctively Republican," says Power.
"They would gag and die before they voted for a liberal Democrat,
just because of their hostility toward the Democrats' position on
poverty, welfare, distribution of income and taxes."
When the coalitions that had made the
1970s reforms possible ruptured, Democratic strength plummeted. In
1975, both houses of the Legislature were Democratic and the
governor was Democrat Tom Judge. In the early 1980s, one house was
usually Republican and the governor was Democrat Ted Schwinden. In
the late 1980s, at least one house was always Republican and the
governor was Republican Stan Stephens. By 1995, both houses were
solidly Republican and the governor was Republican Marc
The "Jensen Incident," as it became
known, was the first obvious sign of the fallen stature of the
environment in the Treasure State. In 1993, Pegasus Mining Co." s
lawyers drafted a bill to prevent citizens from challenging mining
permits granted on state land by making them put up a bond and pay
all parties' attorney's fees if their appeal failed. The bill was
carried by Butte Sen. Henry McClernan.
Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center, who attacks
mining proposals the way a pit bull goes at an intruder, lobbied
against this protester-pays bill so fiercely he was charged with
intimidation and banned from the Legislature for 12 days. He
immediately sued the Legislature.
illustrated Montana's change in attitude between the 1970s and
"Shame on ... Jim
Jensen," wrote the Great Falls Tribune. "Overstepped again."
The 1993 Legislature also passed a bill that
permitted mines to degrade streams beyond what the early 1970s
legislation allowed. The next year, Canyon Resources and its
partner, Phelps Dodge, submitted a 10,000-page application for
permits for the McDonald Mine. A few months later, at the start of
the 1995 legislative session, lawyers from Pegasus Mining Company
walked into the office of legislative staffer Michael Kakuk with
two water bills on a computer
"I plopped it on my
computer, cleaned up some of the language, put it in the right
format and sent it on to the sponsor," says Kakuk, who is now an
attorney in Helena. "It is not at all unusual for the mining
companies to do this in Montana."
A veto threat
by Republican Gov. Racicot forced the Legislature to tone down the
bills. Racicot then signed them. On that day, says University of
Montana aquatic ecologist Vicki Watson, Montana's standards for
cancer-causing chemicals became the weakest in the Northern
Rockies. Montana's previous arsenic standard had allowed one case
of cancer per 1 million people; the new standard allows one case of
cancer per 1,000 people.
Industry argued that
arsenic occurs naturally at this level in some Montana streams
because of thermal springs flowing out of Yellowstone National
Park. Opponents countered that the arsenic found in high
concentration in the groundwater underneath the proposed McDonald
Mine would never enter the Blackfoot River if the mine was
prohibited from pumping this water, untreated, out of its
"The two big water
bills were conceived and written with that (McDonald) project
definitely in mind," says Harper. "Absolutely."
The Legislature couldn't dismantle all the laws written in the
1970s, but environmentalists say Racicot took apart the agencies
that enforced them. In 1995, all environmental regulatory agencies
were abolished and replaced by the Department of Environmental
Quality. The reason given: to improve communication and
coordination. But critics called the reorganization "one-stop
permitting" because it eliminated many of the steps mining
companies had to go through and left all final decisions up to
Racicot-appointed DEQ director Mark Simonich, a former timber
industry executive and natural resource advisor to Republican U.S.
Sen. Conrad Burns.
Kevin Keenan spent 24 years
in Montana's state regulatory agencies, most recently as a
water-quality enforcer. He took an early retirement shortly after
the reorganization, he says, because his job became superfluous; it
had become too easy for the mining companies to influence the
worked precisely to eliminate 20 years of history in Montana. We've
taken a major step backwards in Montana in how we enforce the law,"
says Keenan. "Now we give the impression that the law is somehow
voluntary and discretionary. We'll pay the price."
Clean water and common
How much power did mining companies have
in the state Legislature by 1995? "Complete," says National
Wildlife Federation attorney Tom France. "Absolute," says Jim
Jensen. "The word of a mining corporation is gospel." It is not
surprising, then, that some in Montana found the political
thing that really got me upset is that the industry went in and
revamped, revised the pollution laws," says Land Lindbergh, who
used to ranch in the Blackfoot Valley and still owns land there.
"It is normal for them to want to make as much money as they can to
maximize dollars for stockholders. I am more upset with the
The Northern Plains Resource
Council believed that voters could be convinced to strengthen the
new water laws by passing a 1996 initiative that would require new
and expanding heap-leach mines to discharge clean water. It would
prohibit these mines from diluting their waste over several miles
of river in "sacrifice zones," as environmentalists call them.
A broad-based group, Montanans for Clean Water,
was formed and it followed the rules for a successful citizens'
initiative. It went to the public with a simple message - clean
water - and a diverse group of public supporters. Co-chairmen were
a conservative rancher and a Republican ex-legislator. Initially,
it looked like a winner.
Then at summer's end,
the polls shifted, thanks to mining companies Pegasus, Placer Dome,
Phelps Dodge, ARCO and ASARCO. Together they contributed just under
$2 million to Montanans for Common Sense Water Laws, which was led
by Jerome Anderson, a 50-year veteran of mining lobbying and
lawyering in Helena.
Anderson's group flooded TV
with the mining industry's message that the initiative's
water-quality standards required absurdly low levels of pollution.
So low, the ads said, that tests couldn't detect them. On radio -
the link to the outside world for the rural eastern counties - the
group aired anti-initiative ads as frequently as weather reports.
Most nights before the evening news on television, viewers saw a
The state government didn't
counter these claims. In fact, Racicot came out against the
initiative, saying that its standards couldn't be tested. A few
days before the election, the DEQ released a federal report that
environmentalists claim had been in its possession since July. The
report stated that other states were measuring pollution levels
similar to what the initiative would require. Racicot refused to
change his stance.
On the positive side, the
mining industry, through Montanans for Common Sense Water Laws,
painted a pretty picture. It portrayed a new mining industry that
provided decent jobs, good benefits, a boosted tax base and strong
local economies. Most important, the mining industry was the ally
of other industries, such as ranching, and this highly advertised
relationship became the linchpin of the mining industry's strategy.
Mining needed the ranchers. Montana's high-tech
mines employ less than 2 percent of Montana's workers - 2,100
people. There are more bus drivers, college professors, probably
even novelists in Montana. Miners simply don't have the votes. But
agriculture, Montana's number-one industry,
According to rancher Arlo Skari, here's
how the strategy worked: When a rancher read his stockgrowers'
association newsletters that summer, he scanned the price of wheat,
checked the cattle market and then found an article warning him
that the dangerous water initiative would shut his ranch
Maybe a week later, he was visited in his
isolated valley by a miner like KD Feeback, who "scared the
daylights out of the ranchers," says Lee Pattison, referring to
Feeback's meeting in her living room. "Folks get scared by the
economic thing. It motivates everybody. Montana is a very poor
By November, ranchers were frightened.
They didn't want to lose what they had struggled to preserve - a
piece of land, some cows, some profit. So they voted against the
initiative. They voted against clean water - perhaps the same water
that flowed into their irrigation ditches.
Up next: Montana's largest
If you follow the Blackfoot River 10 miles
from its headwaters, to where the flow runs shallow and the riffles
silver, you come to a Forest Service campground. Behind the
campground is a wildflower-filled meadow and two forested
Those buttes are loaded with one of the
10 largest gold deposits in the world.
field is leased from the state by Denver-based Canyon Resources
Inc., which wants to get the gold out. To do so, it proposes to
construct a veritable industrial city - the McDonald
If the clean-water initiative had passed,
it would have been difficult, or at least expensive, for the mine
to satisfy its standards.
Without the stricter
standards, only two things stand in Canyon Resources' way. First,
it must get an environmental impact statement approved by the DEQ,
an agency that has never denied a permit to a large-scale hardrock
mine. Then it needs its permit approved by its landlord,
represented by the state land board.
permit is deemed legal, the state land board would have a hard time
rejecting it. However, with enough pressure from the public, the
state land board could demand conditions, like backfilling the
giant pit, that would make it uneconomical for the company to
"We will be labeled by a
decision like this. For us, it is a big decision," says land board
member and state auditor Mark O'Keefe. "But it is a persuadable
land board. It listens to the public."
the November 1996 defeat of the clean-water initiative, it would
seem that Montana has already spoken decisively. But now, in late
1997, the political landscape is shifting once
One year after the defeat of the
initiative, things are tense in the mine office. The McDonald
Mine's environmental impact analysis is a year overdue, and costs
have escalated. Then on Nov. 12, Cathy Siegner, communications
manager for DEQ, sent a bitter letter of resignation to director
Mark Simonich. Calling top agency officials "spin doctors," and
"truth-twisters," she said her conscience would not allow her to
work for an agency that helps mining companies and hinders the
"I will not stand by on
the state payroll and watch you stretch the truth in order to
further some agenda that is neither publicly discussed or
collectively supported," wrote Siegner.
Racicot immediately asked her to substantiate these claims. In a
five-page follow-up, Siegner poured out a history of mismanagement
and confusion surrounding the McDonald Mine's environmental impact
It started early in the year, when
state agencies and the company writing the environmental impact
statement, Morrison-Maierle Environmental Corp. (MME), traded
insults and accusations. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
called the company "incapable and inexperienced," labeled its work
"substandard" and accused the company of "cutting corners," the DEQ
decided to fire the firm, then changed its mind and instead hired a
second company, TerraMatrix, to help MME finish writing the
In October, Alan Czarnowsky, project
manager for TerraMatrix, quit, writing in his letter of
resignation: "... forcing me to work with inexperienced specialists
on a project of national focus has resulted in a situation that is
Ten days later, Jim Robinson, the
state's EIS coordinator for the McDonald Mine, also
Then, to speed up the preparation of the
EIS, Simonich abolished the impacts bureau, which oversees the EIS
processes, and placed the McDonald Mine's EIS under the hardrock
mine permitting bureau.
Critics called this
reorganization a conflict of interest, because the same people who
are supervising the writing of the EIS will now decide whether to
approve it. Furthermore, Sandi Olsen, who heads the permitting
bureau, "is a pretty well-known friend of the mining industry. It's
an accepted fact in the state," says environmental engineer Geoff
Siegner says she tried to help the
Montana press follow the story, but she was often stymied by its
complexities. What exactly was the problem with the consulting
companies? Why was MME kept on? Why did Mark Simonich abolish the
impacts bureau a week after he told the bureau it was doing a good
job and a few days after he met with an industry lobbying
After Cathy Siegner resigned, former DEQ
employee Kevin Keenan and the Northern Plains Resource Council
released a report accusing DEQ of helping companies get permitted
rather than enforcing environmental laws. "I hope the public will
be upset when they know the depth and breadth of influence that
mining companies exert over agencies, from permitting to approval
of project to enforcement," said Keenan.
Deputy Director Curt Chisholm dismisses this report: "We have a
fundamental difference, a philosophical disagreement with (Keenan)
about our role as enforcers. His report is based on his claim that
he worked for the agency. There was a lot of enforcement going on
that he didn't have anything to do with."
other events this fall could affect the McDonald Mine. In
September, Phelps Dodge, the copper company that owned 75 percent
of the McDonald project, sold its share to its partner, Canyon
Resources. Phelps Dodge explained that, after seven years of
spending money on the mine, it wanted to "concentrate on resources
elsewhere." Maybe. But maybe the second-wealthiest copper mining
company in the world was ducking out of an increasingly unpopular
In November, gold prices fell to an
18-year low, making one out of five mines worldwide uneconomical.
Pegasus was forced to close its newly opened Mount Todd gold mine
in Australia. Its stocks plummeted. In December, Pegasus Gold
Australia, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pegasus Gold, filed for
bankruptcy in Australia. It is unclear whether Pegasus Gold, the
company that employs 25 percent of Montana's miners at its four
mines, will close its mines in the state.
Montana's mining reality looks eerily the way it did in 1971, when
instability in Chile reverberated throughout the state, and
Montanans learned that a state built entirely on mining can crumble
in a flash.
What does this all mean for the
future of the McDonald Mine? Nothing immediately. The DEQ continues
to work on the mine's plan and the state land board will still
review it. But over the past few years, the mining industry's power
over the state has been exposed. So has its fallibility and
Environmentalists know what they
want to do with this: prevent the largest mine from being built.
This is one of the first mines officially opposed by two
Missoula-based environmental groups - the Clark Fork Pend Oreille
Coalition and Trout Unlimited.
Thanks to them
and the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center, the
McDonald Mine has already received far more statewide attention
than Montana's seven other cyanide heap-leach
Opponents focus on the river that, if the
mine were built, would function as a drain for up to 16 million
gallons of groundwater daily and someday become the exit route for
water leaving the giant, unreclaimed pit.
makes lots of people edgy. The Blackfoot River is gorgeous.
Lodgepole pines line its shores, and the trout are sublime. The
Blackfoot is where Norman Maclean set his fly-fishing classic, A
River Runs Through It. People's hushed tones suggest that the river
is mythical, as if gods graced it or fairies skimmed its surface
"The people I
run into in the state say this is the one thing they're willing to
get arrested for," says Jim Jensen, who is still fighting mines.
"The Blackfoot is a special place for no other reason. It is
cosmic. It is blessed and should be. Something more than a river
runs through it."
Bumper stickers in the
college towns of Missoula and Bozeman announce, "The Blackfoot is
more precious than gold." But as the initiative campaign showed,
environmentalists rarely penetrate the small towns and communities
that support mining. Montana Human Rights Coalition director Ken
Toole says it is not enough for environmentalists to fight these
battles alone. "My question for the 1990s is, has the democratic
progressive alliance that made Montana's constitution possible ...
been shattered?" Toole asks. "Or is it just pushed back by
Strangely enough, the threat
of the McDonald Mine may catalyze the reconstruction of these
alliances, 1990s style. A sign of this possibility is John Krutar,
whose ranch lies on the banks of the Blackfoot
Krutar's paternal line charts the
history of eking life out of the harsh Montana landscape. His
father, orphaned at nine in Butte's mining camps and raised by a
bachelor miner, gave his youth and one of his fingers to the mines.
Then he bought this ranch. John Krutar inherited it and grows wheat
here. Now John's son, Eric, earns $350 a day shuttling tourists
with fishing poles down the Blackfoot River, floating them past his
As John talks, he grows weepy,
partly because of the threat of the gold mine, partly because Eric
is packing and getting ready to leave for a year-long course in
boat building. He says he hopes that Eric won't return to a
John Krutar explains that the
land has allowed his family - from miner to rancher to fishing
guide - to survive. They all survived thus far alongside mining,
but the scale of the cyanide heap-leach mines now makes him
question whether farmers and ranchers have much in common with the
easy when you live off the land to take a position that those
(environmentalist) bastards are all after us," says Krutar. "But
you need to realize the difference between a pond of arsenic and
cyanide and a pond of cow shit. I'll take my chances with a pond of
Three years ago, Krutar began a
group called the Blackfoot Legacy. It's for people like himself,
who don't oppose mining, but who think the McDonald Mine is too big
and too hazardous. The group has just 300 members, mainly retirees
and ranchers, because it tries to limit membership to people who
meet two unofficial requirements: They own land in the Blackfoot
Valley and they're politically conservative. This way, the Legacy
can speak not just about a land ethic that developed from working
the soil, but also from the experience of sparring with
environmentalists and grudgingly making
"We all made mistakes
in agriculture. They were made out of naiveté, not on
purpose," says Krutar. "We learned a lot on our places."
The Legacy isn't officially opposed to the
McDonald Mine - if the mine makes adjustments to preserve the land.
This would mean backfilling the giant pit and monitoring acid mine
drainage in perpetuity. The mine would have to scale down and
develop slowly to make sure it is not poisoning the river, says
Krutar. He suggests the company only extract a little ore at a
time, build a rail link to east Helena and smelt it at the ARCO
smelter there. Languishing since its heyday when the Berkeley Pit
operated, the smelter is threatening to
"Then you are really
providing jobs. You create jobs for the railroad. You keep the
smelter open," says Krutar. "You mine in different ways and see how
it goes. Do one chapter at a time. If they argue that it is cost
prohibitive, well, maybe this isn't the time. We ought to wait
until there is a new technology."
isn't going anywhere, adds Krutar, with a nod upstream.
This sounds plenty radical to some of Krutar's
neighbors. "I get calls in the middle of the night, threatening to
shoot me - kill me," says Mark Gerlach, a Legacy member. "I carry a
gun wherever I go."
Gerlach is the closest
thing the Blackfoot Legacy has to a Dave Foreman. The former
Lincoln resident and Forest Service employee now is a handyman and
rancher on a guest ranch in the Blackfoot Valley. When we meet, he
has a chainsaw in one hand and is rolling a cigarette with the
other. His creased blond face and cowboy hat conjure up the Old
West, but his words evoke the New
"These people think that
everything is for sale. The river's not for sale. Not for what they
want to do to it ... This is where clean air and clean water come
from," he says. And grinning, he adds, "I refuse to capitulate to
Gerlach thinks that if local
ranchers took the time to analyze the mine, they would agree with
him, "without exception."
"They have a natural affinity
for the land. I don't know anybody who would treat the ground like
(the mine plans to). These ranchers don't do that," he says. "But
they are private people. And so dern busy, they want to be left
But like a siren, events have roused
some ranchers from their busy and private lives. Near Lewistown, in
the center of Montana and a world away from the Blackfoot, Irvin
Van Haur protested when, after 60 years of feeding his ranch, the
gushing spring on his property a few miles from a gold mine owned
by Canyon Resources dwindled to a
"Now it takes 18
minutes to get one gallon. A cow drinks 15 to 20 gallons a day,"
says Van Haur, who no longer can graze his 60 cows. "What can you
do? (The mining executives) make $3 million a month. I don't make
$20,000 a year."
On the Fort Belknap
Reservation, in eastern Montana, Catherine Halver, an Assiniboine
tribal member, and her Anglo husband, Bill, forced the EPA to take
Pegasus Mining Co. to court for leaking cyanide and acid from its
Zortman-Landusky Mine. Their fight resulted in one of the country's
largest fines for violating the federal clean water law.
In the Sweetgrass Hills, a few bumpy mountains
that break up the monotony of hundreds of miles of rolling plains
in eastern Montana, local ranchers and an Indian tribe protested
the threat of mining in their watershed so vociferously that former
Montana Rep. Pat Williams persuaded Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt to order the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw the
hills from mining for 20
Native Americans and environmentalists are three sides of a natural
alliance," says Richard Thieltges, a wheat farmer in the Sweetgrass
Hills. "We are the only people who truly have to bear the burden of
what's happened to the land. So the mining industry tries to drive
wedges between us."
One of the most effective wedges is
Montana's economy. And the mining industry has wielded this tool
deftly. Over the past few years, mining in Montana has been
gift-wrapped like a present. And reaching for a piece of it are
people in towns where the economy is
"There are a lot of
small communities in Montana not making a great transition to a
knowledge-based economy - small communities that are desperate for
jobs and economic security," says Bradley, the former legislator
and gubernatorial candidate. "Immediately, people look to the past,
and ask, "Why aren't we getting more (minerals) out of the ground?"
Lincoln, population 700, is one of those
communities. And Teresa Sutton is one of those people. She works at
the Scapegoat Eatery. Eight miles downstream from the proposed
McDonald Mine, it is a dimly lit diner on this gritty town's main
drag. It is empty when I arrive, so she sits down with me. Blond
and tired, she talks softly and laughs politely at first, but then
becomes fierce. She describes a life where the mine seems her best
economic hope: Gold miners are friendly, leaving their hard hats on
the lunch counter and laughing with her; the people who want to
stop the mine live somewhere outside, never having tasted a
cheeseburger at her restaurant.
When I ask why
she voted against the initiative, in a single breath she recites
her wish list: health insurance, savings, and a paycheck big enough
to feed and clothe her three girls and herself. Tourism jobs in
Montana average under $20,000 annually. Mining jobs usually start
at $36,000, and she'd love one, "even grunt work." Or at least the
tips from the people who land these lucrative
She nods at the empty booths around her:
"In the winter we just die."
The hum of cars on
the highway enters the Scapegoat, competing with the jukebox. The
cars are headed to Missoula or Helena. Few eddy out in Lincoln.
Business has slowed to a halt, even though this midsummer afternoon
is at the height of the tourist season. In fact, the only time
Lincoln ever received much attention was when the FBI found the
alleged Unabomber's cabin three miles from the
"It doesn't even
have to be a gold mine. If Montana had better paying jobs ..."
Sutton says, and her voice trails off. "But if it has to be a gold
mine that's going to pay better, well, then, let it be."
Sutton says she's not scared that poisons from
the mine would hurt the Blackfoot River. "I put a lot of trust in
KD (Feeback). He owns a lot of that land by the river. If something
went foul, he would voice his opinion. Pretty damn loudly, too,
because he does it that way."
Sutton isn't the
only one who looks to Feeback for hope. He's a Lincoln local
already working as a geologist to help create the McDonald Mine -
living proof of the jobs that could come out of the
Once built, the mine promises to put $13
million annually into the pockets of 390 workers for 12 years.
McDonald Mine spokesman Bill Snoddy predicts that most of these
workers will come from other mines. They are the new mining
gypsies, trained to operate the monster machines that run open-pit
In a state whose per capita income is
one of the lowest in the country, the lure of 390 jobs is powerful.
Already the mine office has over 1,000 job applications, over a
hundred from the Lincoln area. Around the lunch counter at the
Scapegoat, men speculate about these jobs, out there like a
Scarce as a decent
With the mining company keeping such a hold
on the hopes and dreams of the Blackfoot Valley, trust in anything
else is as scarce as a decent job.
kitchen table is a letter from Gov. Marc Racicot, whom Krutar
considers an old friend. It is a response to an invitation from
Krutar, asking the governor to come to his house, sit by the creek,
and talk about the mine. Racicot says he'll come, and Krutar is
Krutar doesn't want to jeopardize this
influence. When I arrive at his house with two environmentalists,
he needles them. They have spent years working to restore a stream
on Krutar's property and all are good friends, but Krutar tells me
later that Legacy members keep their distance from
clear to us that politics in the state are such that we could be
easily discounted as long-haired environmentalists," says Krutar.
"We do our thing, but keep at arm's length. Politically, the mine
folks would like to tie us all together."
if the Legacy is wary of environmentalists, others are wary of it.
At the Scapegoat Eatery, Teresa Sutton sneers when asked about the
group. She reaches behind a vinyl-topped table for a stack of
papers she keeps for customers. She pulls out a copy of Tradeoffs,
the Blackfoot Legacy newspaper, jabbing the masthead with her
"All their directors -
none live in Lincoln. I go to all the (community) meetings of the
Blackfoot Legacy. I remember the first meeting. I thought, "Who are
these people. How come you never ate in my place? How come you
never shopped in the grocery store?" They all own property. They
don't want it to change. They made money someplace else, then moved
here. One guy has a big ranch in Ovando (near Lincoln). Another
inherited that big farm from his
"I understand," she
says. "If I had a lot of money, I wouldn't want (the mine) either.
But I don't own any land."
And I understand
what she is saying: The wedges are deep. But even if John Krutar
can't hurdle all these divisions, what he is attempting is
impressive. In a state whose history has been intertwined with the
mining industry, as if the two were strands of DNA, he is trying to
separate the threads.
old enough to remember how Anaconda ran this state," says Krutar.
"We don't need that concentration of economic power. I'm not
interested in any industry running this state."
To Krutar and a growing number of other Montanans, the McDonald
Mine seems like a good place to assert
(River) is such a clear symbol of all of this," says Ken Toole.
"Here is this thing that is a part of our history, our environment,
how we envision ourselves, that is now in jeopardy. It sits in the
psyche for many of us in Montana."
Heather Abel covers mining in the West for High
Country News. The articles in this issue were supported by a grant
from the Brainerd Foundation of Seattle,