Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Milltown Dam Site and DryCottonwood Creek Ranch: 

A Day of Tuber Talk, Slickens, and Surprises

We’ve been seeing a lot of each other. Ten weeks into the semester its easy to think we all know everything about each other, but despite this Rachel asked everyone to pair up and unearth a previously unknown fact about their partners. This led to fascinating conversation and ridiculous speculation. Back at the motor pool after the trip we circled up and shared ‘little known facts’ about each other. It was in turns hilarious, intriguing, edifying and surprising.

The same can be said for the entire field trip.

Getting to Milltown from Missoula is not challenging, however; we struggled. We made surprise visits to Turah and Bonner before winding through the Canyon River Golf Course to the overlook.

We parked at the small pullout and followed a paved path to a paved circle surrounded by four and a half foot fencing. Signs, placed at neat intervals along the fence, gave a chronological history of the Blackfoot-Clark Fork confluence below.

The first sign in the sequence pictured a Salish fishermen poised with his spear, presumably about after bull trout if the caption (explaining that the Salish called the confluence “Place of big bull trout”) is to be believed. The following Monday Clark Fork Coalition Science Director Chris Brick used the same picture in her slide show adding that the photograph was taken on Warm Springs Creek, the Clark Fork’s headwaters.

The signs progressed along the fence from west to east, the easternmost describing the final restoration and remediation efforts of 2008. Mike Kustudia, manager of Milltown State Park summarized the history, emphasizing the Milltown’s significance as a ‘hub.’ The Sapphire Mountains run south from Mount Sentinel; the Rattlesnake Range heads north from Woody Mountain; the Blackfoot River flows in from the east; the Clark Fork courses north from Butte. Highway 90 passes through Milltown, so do train tracks and highway 200. Mike’s love of the place was apparent and slightly infectious. He painted a picture of the future Milltown park, with fishing and ‘tuber’ access and a paved bike path connected to the Kim Williams trail here in Missoula, continuing along all the way to Turah.

One placard pictured the confluence mid-restoration. The ‘place of big bull trout’ looked like a construction site, like maybe Walmart was coming to Milltown. In the intervening years much has changed at the site, but evidence that man sculpted the place abounds: square ponds, straight roads, and a river channel that resembles a far too perfect sine wave.

What struck me most about the restoration efforts at Milltown, particularly in contrast to our afternoon along the upper Clark Fork, was that the restoration is not just of the land. The State Park and Mike Kustudia are using the clean-up to launch a restoration of Milltown itself.

This is in direct opposition to the efforts along the Upper Clark Fork where the land along the river is held almost entirely by private landowners, most of whom raise cattle. These ranchers have worked around the pollution for one hundred years. They marked it off, not necessarily as hazardous, but because the strangely barren land couldn’t feed cattle. These empty patches became just as much a part of the landscape as the Pintler Mountains to the west and the Sapphires to the east. They even made a name for these areas, slickens. The river’s edge was fenced and cows never saw its surface. Now restoration efforts plan to build roads to these fenced off regions, roads through productive pastures.

We visited Maggie Schmidt, the Ranch Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition’s Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch. She, an Environmental Studies major, working for a river conservation group, raised concerns about the EPA’s ability to restore the river without ruining her business. She is certainly more open to restoration than any other rancher; her ranch is an experiment in restoration. And yet even she questions its feasibility. The plan promises reimbursement for all troubles caused by the restoration but for how long and to what extent?

This field trip contributed answers to some questions, but brought new questions into our discussions of environmental restoration.  For example, I’m worried that we’ve too quickly glanced over the concerns of ranchers. They possess a wisdom borne of generations on the land. It brought up questions for us about the industrial scale of some restoration efforts. Some of us felt like our new awareness of all this pollution in Milltown and the larger Clark Fork watershed shouldn’t empower us to launch yet another industrial project; perhaps instead it should scare us into sitting on our hands for a while.

Chris Brick spoke to our class the week following our field trip. In her presentation, she framed the restoration project as a ‘big one right for the west.’ What does something like that cost? Not just in construction fees, but in terms of risk. Risk associated with unearthing one hundred years of pollution, resurfacing time-tested ranch land, and, most concernedly for us, displacing all of the hazardous material onto the town of Opportunity.

The ‘final destination’ for all the hazardous soils taken from the Clark Fork is the town of Opportunity. The Anaconda Company constructed the town of Opportunity in the 1950’s. They had been using the swampy area as a repository for a while and with growing concern about the environmental implications of so much toxic sludge in one place the company decided to build a town by it. The logic being that it can’t be too terrible if people live near it. In the restoration of the last decade there has been discussion at each stage of where to relocate all the pollution. In the Milltown dam removal experts recommended a local repository, but the idea was ultimately nixed. The repository would have been in a floodplain and for many it made more sense to concentrate all the toxic business in one place. The repository will need to be monitored in perpetuity. Perpetuity is a long time.

If there’s a common idea tying environmental efforts together today, it’s that the natural world is constantly changing, and so are we. How then can we really promise ‘in perpetuity’? The western environmental movement isn’t even a century old. Has the human race practiced anything ceaselessly? As a culture, do we even have a concept of what that might look like?

Pre-Thanksgiving Turkeys: Wilderness meets Civilization in a study of sustainable foods

A blog by Melinda and Ashley

“You had to kill turkeys for a class?” my roommate asked me incredulously after I came home at 9:30 in the evening on Saturday, November the 23rd, exhausted yet wired. My bright green raincoat was embellished with blood droplets, and the inside of my nose still smelled like scalded turkey.

“Well, yeah,” I said. “We didn’t have to if we didn’t want to, though.”

“And you wanted to?”

“Yeah. I mean, not really. But I did.”

We arrived at Prairie Heritage Farms around 6:30 on Friday evening. The owners Jacob and Courtney opened their home to twenty Wilderness and Civ’ers, who slept piled up into their guestrooms or outside under the stars. That night they fed us black lentil spaghetti and gave us a brief introduction to their life stories.

Courtney and Jacob had grown up together in Chester, Montana, and though many years passed before they had any involvement with each other, their lives intersected once more as twenties in Missoula. They married and ended up moving out to the country, starting a farm, and raising children. Now they have a three-year-old named Willa, and a one-year-old named Eli.

To distinguish themselves from Hutterite farmers in the market, they are certified organic. They grow predominantly “ancient” or “heritage” grains that have not been genetically modified for any reason, and therefore have remained essentially the same for thousands of years. They grow small plots of them at a time, often planting by hand—something that their more industrial-type farming neighbors are astounded by.

Like their crops, their turkeys are also “heritage” turkeys; which translates to them being comparatively small, and also not as easy to pluck and eviscerate. Though this might mean more difficulty processing, it also means that their turkeys go for over $6 a pound. And this year, with 20 college students and a nice core of highly experienced friends and colleagues, they had more than enough helping hands.

Saturday morning, at roughly 8:30 AM, they walked us through the process of processing. It started off with catching the bird, and then holding it gently but firmly to our chests, ensuring that our arms were wrapped around its wings so that it wouldn’t slap us in the face. Then we tipped the turkeys into these metal cones that their heads snaked down out of the bottom of, leaving their wings restrained and their legs hanging out. One person slit the throat of the turkey at the jugular and another held its thrashing legs. It took at least five minutes for the turkeys to die after this, and a little longer for them to drain of blood.

After it was dead, the turkey was placed into a vat of boiling water, “scalding” it in order to loosen its feathers. It was then put into a plucking machine: a bucket of sorts, where the bottom spun and out of every surface were what looked like plastic fingers. Held onto by its feet, the plucking machine would be turned on, and it would bash around inside for about a minute. This removed most of the feathers—the rest were hand-picked by a group of five or six Wilderness and Civ’ers. At this point, the head and feet were also removed.

At the next station we loosened the crop of the turkey. This involved cutting its throat open, removing the trachea and the esophagus from the rest of the neck matter, and peeling the crop—a sack just below its throat attached to the esophagus, filled with air and indigestible debris—away from breast tissue and layers of fat. This was the most time consuming and technically difficult of all the stations.

Then came the evisceration station. After creating an incision below the breastplate, all of the internal organs were removed, including the now-free crop and the anus. The liver, heart, and neck were saved, bagged, and put into the now-empty chest cavity before the turkey was placed into its own bag and then shrink-wrapped. Now considered ready to cook and then eat, the turkey was weighed a final time and priced.

Despite having more than enough workers, this process was a lengthy one that took all day. We went through eighty of Jacob and Courtney’s turkeys by 4:30 in the afternoon—save bagging, which was a delay in the process because the turkeys had to cool in ice water for a couple hours before they could be bagged. Friends of theirs that had helped us all day also had a few enormous turkeys and a handful of chickens to process. By this point in the afternoon, the emotionally and physically exhausted had filtered out of their positions and into the kitchen to munch on baked goods and more delicious food that Courtney had prepared.

It was a wearying process; having turkeys die slowly by your hands, which were soon stained with curdled blood; repetitively plucking endless amounts of feathers; struggling to loosen the crop, which smelled wretchedly and filled the body with bile if burst; and pulling out the steaming gizzard, intestines, lungs, and other organs with your bare hands. It was dirty work. It was necessary work.

It’s strange to witness an animal become food. As someone who has never hunted or even gutted a fish, it was more than a shock; it makes me question the source of my food, and whether or not it’s humane to eat an animal. Considering these turkeys, which were raised in a healthy, safe, loving environment, where they ate good food and had plenty of space, it really makes you question the circumstances of store-bought turkeys, and other generic meats. What was their life like? Did they die relatively painlessly? What sort of processing did they undergo post-mortem?

This is an invaluable perspective that I would not have gained, or even considered, had I not slit the throat of a turkey and make eye contact with it through its death, and then tore its feathers out, and then struggled to pull out its crop, and then bagged its edible internal organs, and then proceed to remember the smell of scalded turkey and repeat this process over and over in my mind for days after we had finished.

It’s not an easy process, processing turkeys. But it has to be the most hands-on activity that I have ever done for school. And it’s an invaluable skill, to be able to create your own food, and to understand completely what it takes to get from a live, flapping, clucking creature to a Thanksgiving dinner.