Dear Friends

 

In wolf's clothing

Because HCN does not cover religion, we generally do not take positions on reincarnation. However, if there is reincarnation, we expect Michael Robinson to come back as a wolf. Michael, now a staffer with the Center for Biological Diversity in Pinos Altos, N.M., and a former HCN intern, cares more about wolves than anyone we know.

So we were not surprised that he reacted to the Aug. 27 Dear Friends column, which characterized wolves born into captivity as "stupid" in the ways of the wild. Michael disagreed. He said that once released, these wolves quickly learn to hunt and to be appropriately fearful of humans. He also said that, contrary to what we wrote, at least two pups born in the wild are running around New Mexico. Finally, Michael denies that any wolves are known to have been shot while chasing cattle.

Congratulations

Congratulations to subscriber Tim Coulter for his receipt of Columbia University's Lawrence A. Wien Prize for Social Responsibility. Coulter is executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont. The center represents tribes in the United States and abroad on mining, human rights and other issues. Its Web address is www.indianlaw.org.

After 24 years as Defenders of Wildlife's person in the Northern Rockies, Hank Fischeris moving into new areas. He will stay involved in collaborative ventures: "I think they are the future of resource management in the West." Hank's last day will be Sept. 15. His replacement, Minette Johnson, can be reached at 406/549-4103.

Apology

Sharon Dynak, who runs the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, tells us that our Aug. 13 Bulletin Board write-up of Adam Jahiel's photography exhibit in the foundation's gallery was marred by the fact that the other artist in the two-man show "Out West" - painter Gordon McConnell - "had completely disappeared from the story and the exhibit," which ended Sept. 7. HCN apologizes for the oversight. The foundation can be reached at 307/737-2291.

Visitors

Dr. Rudy Knirsch, who splits his time between Tucson, Ariz., and Hasselroth, Germany, stopped by to renew his subscription. He and a few friends had just picked several hundred pounds of pfifferling mushrooms, better known in this country as chanterelles. This has been a spectacular year for mushrooms in the nearby Elk Mountains, thanks to heavy August rains.

Whodunnit, pardner?

If you're a longtime High Country News reader, you'll pick up lots of allusions to HCN staffers and some reporters in a new mystery novel called Click, written by former HCN editor Dan Whipple. Whipple worked for the paper when it was based in Lander, Wyo., and some of his derring-do characters have mighty familiar names - such as Mick McClary (photographer Mike McClure) and an editor named Krza (a very thinly disguised freelance writer, Paul Krza).

Whipple's novel moves like a freight train - or is it a coal train? - through linked stories of radical-right bombers and corporate theft of biological resources in Yellowstone. There's also a handful of murders. Click emerges this November from the University Press of Colorado.

Coal

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the economic downfall of the Kellogg Company suggests that the slide started in 1986, when the firm stopped offering the public free tours of its mills. The firm's Web site says it ended the tours, which had attracted 200,000 people per year, for reasons of safety and security.

Keith Sieber, the president of Bowie Resources, Ltd., an underground coal mine near Paonia, is not about to repeat Kellogg's mistake, even though you could argue that his worries about safety and security should be higher than Kellogg's. In August and early September, Sieber took about 50 members of a local environmental group underground, a few at a time, including several HCN staffers, to watch a $30 million longwall machine chew its way through a nine-foot-high coal seam.

To understand a longwall, think back to the old Technicolor MGM movies, where Roman legionnaires lock their shields together and advance into enemy ranks, safe as a turtle in its shell. Instead of advancing into enemy ranks, the longwall burrows into coal.

The shields are a series of interlocked, hydraulic-driven, five-foot-wide massive pieces of metal that loom over a haulage system. The tops of the arching metal shields push up against a 700-foot-long seam of coal. Two huge cutting wheels move along under the shields at 60 feet per minute, cutting three-foot slices off the face. The coal falls onto a conveyor belt that runs along the face of the coal seam to a second belt, which carries the coal out of the mine.

In the semi-darkness of the mine, the conveyored coal looks like a rapidly moving, choppy, five-foot-wide black river.

Once the blades pass, each shield shoves forward three feet, firmly wedging its top against the newly sheared face. This opens up a nine-foot-high void behind the shields. Nature, of course, abhors a void, and so the mountain collapses into the opening, causing what the miners describe as bumps, bounces and thumps. Our group got to experience a few thumps.

Does Sieber worry about the risk of taking so many civilians underground? "I never think about going underground as being unsafe."

Why does this conservative mining executive spend so much time teaching environmentalists how to put on and use headlamps and self-rescuers, and then guide them, stooping, under the shields that keep 2,000 feet of mountain from crushing them?

Sieber says he is acting out of pure self-interest. Bowie mines coal beneath the public's national forest land. "The more you understand about our business, the more likely you will be to help or at least listen when we get in trouble, and come up with a solution we'd like to implement."

So far, Sieber's approach is working. Last year, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council signed a contract that caps Bowie's production, requires it to shift from trucking its coal on a local highway to shipping it by rail, provides financial help to the community to improve railroad crossings, and commits to maintaining certain environmental standards. WSERC in turn promised not to appeal Bowie Resource's application for a large federal coal lease (HCN, 7/31/2000: Out of the darkness).

While Bowie was negotiating with WSERC, the large mine up-valley, Arch Coal Company's West Elk operation, stood aloof from the talks and in fact was critical of them.

But now the West Elk mine's production has been crippled by methane gas. One solution is to drill gob vent boreholes into the mine to remove it - but drilling the boreholes would require road construction on unroaded national forest land above the mine.

The Forest Service had been granting permits on an ad hoc basis, leading WSERC to file a lawsuit.

Now, as quickly as you can say road reclamation and gob vent boreholes, Arch and WSERC are talking.

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