A blog by Rebecca Boslough and Ellora Duncan
A gust brought the smell of fresh mountain air as we adjusted ourselves on the rocky hilltop that was going to be our desk for the next two hours. The infamous winds of the Rocky Mountain front intermittently calmed, giving way to the warmth of the sun and forcing us to shed our puffy jackets. We were sitting in the middle of the Pine View Swamp Preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy with a view of the mountains on one side of us and the plains on the other. To begin our trip to the Rocky Mountain Front, we met with Nature Conservancy land manager Nathan Birkland.
Nathan manages all the land the Nature Conservancy Owns on the Rocky Mountain Front. As we looked to Owl Mountain, a sacred vision quest site to the Blackfeet, Nathan detailed the ecological diversity and significance of the area. The preserve had fens fed by subsurface waters, riparian areas critical to grizzly movement, winter habitat for large ungulates, and astonishing plant diversity found along the front due to the meeting of the Rocky Mountain Climate and the plains climate. The entirety of the front contains an immense diversity of plants and animals, as well as important habitat.
Nathan explained the Nature Conservancy’s mission to protect land on the Front primarily through purchasing conservation easements and some key pieces of land. Conservation easements are agreed upon by property owners and a land trust, such as the Nature Conservancy, or unit of government. The easement prohibits certain uses on the land, such as subdivision or road building. They can protect specific aspects of the land, such as riparian areas, and do not usually interfere with livestock management. Once a piece of land has a conservation easement on it, it is applicable to both the present and future owners of the land and is included in the title for the property. This particular aspect of conservation easements makes them a long-lasting solution. According to Nathan, the Nature Conservancy is now looking to the entire Crown of the Continent in its conservation planning.
In addition to easements and land management, Nathan also explained a bit about hydraulic fracturing on the front. He does not share the same concerns as other people because comparatively there are not big oil and gas reserves in the ground like there are in places like the Bakken. Although there are speculators driving up interest and buying leases, the big oil companies are still overlooking the area and do not seem to be interested in investing. It was a perspective on hydraulic fracturing on the front that many of us hadn’t heard before.
Beyond hydraulic fracturing, one of the most interesting aspects of Nathan’s presentation was his explanation of how he works in the community. Living in Choteau since he was 17, he is a local by now. He works with the community and individuals to achieve conservation. He emphasized finding that solutions that work for people and can even help improve their situation. For example, if the Nature Conservancy buys conservation easements on land next to a family ranch, the value of that land is technically decreased. With that decrease in value a decrease in price follows, which could enable that ranching family to purchase additional land for cattle grazing. In some situations, as Nathan elaborated, this even allowed the ranch to be large enough for multiple generations to own and work the land at the same time as opposed for the younger generation working a different job until the older generation chooses to retire. This sort of approach brought up interesting thoughts and questions about what works and local actions and solutions for conservation. “Everything we do is about relationships,” Nathan pointed out. And it seems that the Nature Conservancy is working to develop those relationships on the Rocky Mountain Front. Meeting with Nathan was a valuable part of our trip, not only because he explained the diversity of the area and shed light on the conflict surrounding hydraulic fracturing, but because he gave us insight into the importance of on-the-ground work in communities and the importance of working with people.
Outside of Browning, MT, we stayed with a Blackfoot woman named Pauline. Everyone agreed that Pauline was an incredibly welcoming and kind host. She invited nineteen wind-blown college kids into her home (which she built herself), made us delicious fry bread, and pasta, and shared many stories and pieces of knowledge.
Pauline is a gifted herbalist and makes healing products and teas for her self-created company, The Real People medicine. Pauline grew up with 16 brothers and sisters, and throughout her life she has depended on the land. She told us that the earth always took care of her, and she is very intentional about gratitude towards the land which continues to give us all so much. Pauline emphasized the importance of this gratitude to the land, and she talked about her ritual when she collects plants– praying to the plant, offering the plant a gift of some of her tobacco, thanking the plant, and never throwing away any part of it.
Pauline told us about the traditional tobacco ceremony, and how there used to be 288 songs which were part of the ritual. The traditional ceremony and songs have been largely lost because they, like many other traditions and ceremonies, became illegal, and had to go underground. A lot of traditional plant knowledge has been lost for the same reason, but there have always been streams of knowledge which have survived, and Pauline humbly shared bits of this knowledge with us. Pauline collects and grows the vast majority of the plants she uses, both for her business and personal use. When we first went into her house there was a huge pile of nettles and sage drying on her counter. She told us about how calcium-rich nettles are, and that many Indian people are lactose-intolerant because they were never exposed to cow milk. She said she has never had a glass of milk in her life, but the nettles have twice as much calcium. The sage on her counter was Wormwood Sage, a very medicinal plant with many traditional uses. She told us how sage plant species are usually divided into “women’s sage” and “man sage,” because certain plants are particularly important for women or men. When we went on a walk with Pauline she pointed out both woman sage and man sage, which is the sage brush common to the plains.
We were also introduced Pauline’s friend, a botanist, ecologist, activist, and self-titled “student of the land.” She spoke to us about activism, fen-ecosystem ecology, and gas and oil leasing on the Rocky Mountain front.
She was very passionate about the issues she discussed with us, and emphasized how important it is to never underestimate our ability to make change. She told us about the petition that Pauline threw together in 24 hours in order to slow the process of land leasing for oil and gas on the front. She talked about how important it is to educate people on the issues at hand, and to “move people from apathy to action.”
The botanist told us about the distinctive fen ecosystem on the reservation. A fen is a wet-land fed by a source of sub-surface water. The Blackfeet reservation has over 57,000 acres of wetland, 20,000 acres of lakes, and 4 substantial watersheds. The area contains 50 percent of the vascular plant species of Montana, 85 percent of the native mammals of Montana, 75 percent of all fish in Montana, 50 percent of its reptiles and 60 percent of its amphibians. The area has incredible biological diversity, and is provides very unique and important habitat, due to its proximity to the mountains. The Aspen Parkland belt is one of the last in-tact Aspen belts in North America, and contains many culturally important plant species, and is crucial bird habitat.
People mentioned that there is consideration to remove Grizzly bears from the endangered species list. This could be detrimental because Grizzlies are “umbrella species” and subsequently protect a whole host of other species.
One speaker talked with us about the potential environmental effects of oil and gas on the front, damaging air and water quality, and human health as well. She told us about how current regulation dealing with extraction waste is incredibly lax, and that holding ponds for the waste are not properly regulated or fenced.
The leasing process on the reservation varies according to whether the land is trust land, allotted land, or fee-land. Most of the oil/gas leasing is proposed on trust land, which follows BLM regulation, which our speakers described as entirely inadequate.
Because the reservation is so economically feeble, oil and gas leasing is an alluring subject on the reservation. Everyone wants to see an economic boost, but not at the cost of ecological and human vitality.
After talking with us for an hour or so, we went on a walk with Pauline to a fen and an aspen grove. Later in the day we hiked several miles on forest service land, looking into the edge of the east side of Glacier National Park.
We ended our trip with a hike into the Badger Two Medicine with Lou Bruno. His emotional presentation the day before about his experiences with the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) and the need for more conservation action in Montana had set a good tone for the hike. All his work with the Glacier Two Medicine Alliance and MWA was incredible to hear about. Lou, Pauline, local ecologists, and Nathan are all local leaders coming from different backgrounds and working in different ways. It was interesting to see how they approached issues and what they were most passionate about.
The adventure into the Badger Two Medicine started long before we got out of the car. The road in took us an hour to drive and required some serious four wheel drive. Janine surprised us all as she blazed through one particularly intimidated mud hole. By the time we got to the trailhead we were excited and ready to hike. Lou led us to a beautiful stream where most of the group went for a quick (and cold) swim. After that, we hike to the top of a small mountain with quite a view into the valley. The Badger Two Medicine was striking. Many of us seemed to connect with the place.
This week we learned about and experienced the ecology, history, native tradition, and current issues on the Rocky Mountain front. We spent three days in a breath-taking location in the autumn sun, exploring fen ecosystems, climbing peaks, looking into river valleys at the changing Aspen trees, learned about medicinal herbs, saw moose and a bear, jumped in a freezing river, and bounced along dirt roads like we were in a jeep commercial. This was an entirely unique opportunity to get to stay on the reservation, and hear from such a wide range of unique, passionate and educated speakers.
This week was eye opening to the reality of the vulnerability of Montana's land, and the economic and environmental issues on the reservation. We were convinced time and time again that a place as ecologically and culturally unique and rich as these are unconditionally worth protecting.