I was a closet environmentalist

  • THOMAS LEE/MONTANA QUARTERLY

  • THOMAS LEE/MONTANA QUARTERLY

 

NAME Roger Muggli
Age 59
Vocation Farmer/Feed Plant Operator
Elected Position Secretary of the Tongue and Yellowstone Irrigation District (third generation)
Handle Water Dog (H2OK9)
Home Base Family farm east of Miles City, Montana
Life Passion Water
He Says "Wouldn't it be grand if our kids and grandkids could float down the Yellowstone and still experience it the way we do?"

Roger Muggli is a compact, fit man whose conversation, and everyday life, brim over with energy. He oversees the day-to-day operation of his family's fourth-generation farm, just east of Miles City, and manages a feed-pellet plant on the side. He also serves as the elected supervisor of the local irrigation district, just as his father and grandfather did before him, distributing water from the Tongue and Yellowstone Canal across 9,400 acres of farmland. And in his spare time, he's involved in every significant water issue along the lower Yellowstone watershed, from building fish passages around dams to fighting the water pollution from coalbed methane drilling. All of which explains why Muggli's friends call him the "busiest man in eastern Montana."

"Dad expected me to think on my own and defend myself," Muggli says. "That meant thinking outside the box. For me, the box was my close-knit family and the fact that I was born a Republican and a Catholic. I was intrigued by my relatives' nasty outlook towards environmentalists. I thought I'd look into it. A lot of what environmentalists said made sense to me, but for a long time I had to stay in the closet about that.

"At some point it just took building up enough courage to declare myself."

Whether he called himself an environmentalist or not, Muggli has always had an intimate bond with his native landscape. "The longest I've been away from the family farm my whole life is two weeks," he says. "I spent my childhood on the Yellowstone River. I love that place. When the chores were done, Mom would turn us loose, usually barefoot, and we'd run for the river."

At the age of 8, Muggli started finding fish that had been "entrained" in the irrigation canal. He watched them flop around as the water dried up. Horrified by how it must feel to gulp mud and suffocate, he scooped up fish in buckets and ran like hell for the Yellowstone, where he set them free.

"Those fish have been with me all my life," Muggli says, and they eventually inspired him to spearhead the construction of a fish passage on the Tongue River. The Twelve-Mile Dam, built in 1886 by Miles City businessmen, provides the water that Muggli oversees and uses on his fields. But it also kept some 50 species of fish, including sturgeon, paddlefish and stickleback chub, from swimming upriver.

When Muggli was elected secretary of the T&Y Canal in 1987, he set to work to alleviate the problem. Still, it took another 20 years of meetings, fund raising, studies and construction before the fish passage on the dam was finally opened in August 2007. For the first time in more than a century, fish came up the Tongue to spawn and occupy habitat.

"I guess that's my biggest message to people," Muggli says. "If you see a problem, something that needs fixing, just get started. Go do it."

Reflecting on his environmental career, Muggli says: "It has been a real ride. And it's far from over. My biggest concern right now is to keep water in the rivers, to keep them living and functioning. All the fish passages in the world won't matter if the water's gone."

Lately, Muggli has focused his energies on coalbed methane in eastern Montana, provoked by concerns over water quality.

"I was having lunch with one of the lawyers for the big gas companies," Muggli recalls. "He actually shared his sandwich with me.

"I asked him: 'Why the hell won't you just reinject the water?'

"'Roger,' he said, 'we have millions of dollars set aside just to fight you in court on this issue. By God, that's what we're going to use that money for!' "

Incidents like this have made Muggli look more like a Sierra Club-style enviro than his rural, ranching colleagues might be comfortable with. But his neighbors seem to respect him and his passionate, stubborn work. "Around here, in this cowboy, kick-ass culture, if you aren't getting a lot of flak, you've made huge strides."

 

The author is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. His most recent book is This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor (Public Affairs), co-authored with Susan Wicklund.