Montana on the edge: A fight over gold forces the Treasure State to confront its future

  • Proposed mines in Montana

    Diane Sylvain
  • McDonald Mine would produce 4 million oz. of gold

    Mont. Enviro. Info. Center
  • Landusky Mine: McDonald mine would be over three times this size

    John C. Smart
  • Teresa Sutton, waitress

    Heather Abel
  • John Krutar

    Heather Abel
  • Mark Gerlach

    Heather Abel
  • Richard Thieltges, rancher

    Heather Abel
 

Note: several sidebar articles, including a timeline of the Zortman-Landusky mine and accounts by several stakeholders telling their views in their own words, are available in the "Sidebar" section of this online issue.

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 down.

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 businesses.

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 phoenix.

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.

If you 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.

Two 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 mine.

"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."

If the 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 Montana.

Montana, New York

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.

The 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.

The Company 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 state.

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.

Progressives 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:

"We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains ..."

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 stock.

"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.

During 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 Act.

"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 capitol looking mournful.

"Progressive laws 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 capitol.

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?

To 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.

After nearly 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 process.

During the past two decades, miners have extracted more gold nationwide with modern mining techniques than was produced in the previous century.

But 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 them.

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 place.

"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 people nervous.

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.

Economist 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 valleys.

"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."

Environmentalists lose clout

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 Racicot.

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.

Jim 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.

Press coverage illustrated Montana's change in attitude between the 1970s and 1990s.

"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 disk.

"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 operation.

"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 agency.

"The reorganization 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 sense

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 landscape oppressive.

"The 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 legislators."

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 "mining minute."

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, does.

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 down.

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 state."

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 mine

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 buttes.

Those buttes are loaded with one of the 10 largest gold deposits in the world.

The ore 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 Mine.

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.

If the 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 mine.

"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."

Given 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 again.

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 press.

"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.

Gov. 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 statement.

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 EIS.

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 unworkable."

Ten days later, Jim Robinson, the state's EIS coordinator for the McDonald Mine, also quit.

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 Smith.

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 group?

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.

DEQ 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."

Two 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 venture.

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.

Déjê vu

Today, 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 instability.

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 mines.

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.

This 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 like mayflies.

"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 political forces?"

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 River.

The alliance

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 father's ranch.

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 poisoned river.

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 mining industry.

"It's really 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 cow shit."

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 changes.

"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 close.

"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."

The gold 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 West.

"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 those bastards."

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 alone."

A landed resistance

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 trickle.

"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 years.

"Farmers-ranchers, 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."

The wedge

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 sagging.

"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 jobs.

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 Scapegoat.

"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 ground.

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 mines.

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 promise.

Scarce as a decent job

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.

On Krutar's 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 pleased.

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 environmentalists.

"It was 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."

But 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 finger.

"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 father.

"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.

"I'm 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 independence.

"The Blackfoot (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, Washington.