Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?
Sierra Main
In This Section
  May/June 1998 Features:
The War for Norman's River
Reading, 'Riting, and Ravaging
The Invisible Hand
Field Guide
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Good Going
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Sierra Club Bulletin
Natural Resources
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
The War for Norman's River

The Big Blackfoot has inspired a novel, a movie, and—most recently—an army of river lovers willing to fight like maniacs to keep its waters pure.

by David James Duncan

In the late 1970s I wrote a novel—a sort of backwoods Great Expectations in which the "Pip" character, a far-gone fly fisherman, tried to express my lifelong love for the salmon-and-steelhead-filled rivers of the Oregon coast. I wrote it in Portland, dubbed it The River Why, sold it, then used the advance—all $3,000—to move to a cabin on a beautiful Oregon coast river laughably like the one my imagination had bequeathed the protagonist of my book. Simultaneously, The River Why moved out into the world, like a grown child, occasionally dropping me some breathy note such as "Jimmy Carter liked me!" or "I'm being translated into French!"

Publishers whose computers supposedly know this stuff have called my book "the second-best-selling fly-fishing novel after Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It." Judging by my bank account, it's a distant second. But from an old man's and young man's opposite-end-of-life perspectives, Maclean's tragedy and my comedy are related: both speak in long, idiosyncratic sentences of rivers, fly-fishing, and beloved but inscrutable younger brothers; both were rejected by every big publisher in the land before being taken by small presses; both were then read by hundreds of thousands, bringing their authors many satisfactions, in my case including a thousand fish-story-filled fan letters, metal "trout flies" made from Budweiser cans (which really do catch trout), fly rods, river trips, river-inspired CDs, and an urban carp fly that imitates a soggy Marlboro butt.

With so much cause for gratitude, I have a confession to make: I would gladly give up The River Why and all it's given me if I could get back the waters that inspired the book in the first place. The irony of my love novel to rivers is that it bought me the freedom to live smack amid the betrayal of the very watersheds, wildlife, and rural rustics I'd just celebrated: I watched a Reagan-led political-corporate juggernaut crush the most beautiful temperate forests on Earth and convert them, at a financial loss, into muddy-rivered corporate-welfare tree farms. I watched the five-species cathedral groves, green-eyed streams, and tidewater towns that gave me my body, my life's work, and my favorite form of worship reduced to an unsustainable monoculture.

Toward the end of this betrayal I was plagued by a nightmare in which Congress finally clearcut even my ability to write, with legislation that eliminated the letters a, e, i, and u from the alphabet, just as they'd eliminated spruce, cedar, hemlock, and salmon from my home. They argued that monoculture was the wave of the future, that as English became the lingo of global corporate conquest a language with one vowel would be easier to learn and that the letter o was the shape of the globe. To demonstrate this notion, renowned Senator/Woman Molester Bob Packwood invited a mixed-nationality choir of children onto the Senate floor, where they began to sing using the new global alphabet: O boootofol for spocooos skoos, for ombor wovos of groon/For porplo moontoon mojostoos, obovo tho frootod ploon/Omoroco! Omoroco! God shod Hos groco on thoo...

For four decades I called western Oregon home. It took the timber companies and the U.S. McForest Service less than four years to "liquidate the inventory" of every coastal watershed surrounding my home. After years of struggle against this brutality, I looked up and saw that I was fighting for shreds of an obliterated world. The spotted owl was the first famous species to show that it couldn't live under the assault. As the coho joined the owl in the Land of the Industrial Dead and I was left on a salmon stream without salmon, I realized my heart was another such species.

Unwilling to let despair turn me caustic but unable to shake my grief, I packed my family and moved to Montana, not in hopes of a "better world," but in hopes of at least raising my little girls amid some inviolable wilderness and a few wild streams.

I knew when we arrived in Missoula that my plan had flaws. Our move gave us three legendary rivers just minutes from our door: the Bitterroot, the Lower Clark Fork, and the Big Blackfoot, the incredible river of Maclean's A River Runs Through It and the Robert Redford film of the same name. But the same corporate and political forces that drove the trees, owls, salmon, and me from Oregon were hunkered on the Big Blackfoot long before I got here. And as Huck Finn says at the end of his river adventure, "I been there before."

A proposed cyanide heap-leach gold mine sited just upstream of Ted Kaczynski's old town promised to make the Unabomber look like Gandhi at his loom in comparison. Montana's governor and Department of Environmental Quality were (and still are) opening their arms wide to welcome the mine. Having arrived here needing to finish a new novel to support my family, and knowing how it feels to plead for mercy to a Packwood and a Weyerhaeuser, I felt I lacked the strength to befriend Norman's river. I knew that if I explored the Blackfoot I might fall in love-and if I loved I would surely soon be at war with another Goliath while my novel collected dust.

But what was the alternative? Omoroco tho Boootofol! Rivers die—or at least get converted into lifeless industrial sluices. And what good is A River Runs Through It, The River Why, or anyone else's love-born river song once the life-giving flows that inspire the love are corporatized, plundered, and trashed?

I chose not to serve in Vietnam because I never believed that war was in defense of my country. The war for Norman's river was different. I reread Mocloon's masterpiece while its vowels remained intact, drove up the Blackfoot while God was still shedding grace on its various thees, and fell—as feared, and secretly desired—heart over head in love.

It began, the way it often does on these rivers, when the August sun left the water, the last of the day's bowwowing, beer-and-solar-powered rafters passed out of sight, and the daylong breeze inexplicably died. The countless pines ceased their ceaseless huuuuing. Deer, seemingly from nowhere, suddenly grazed in the center of every meadow. The sky slipped out of its workaday blue and began trying on the entire evening wardrobe—the lavender, the pink, the pumpkin, even the teal. The river matched it gown for gown, adding warps, wefts, and sheens the sky could only dream of.

The herons who'd flupped upriver that morning coasted even more slowly back down. The bald eagles who'd coasted downriver labored back up. The air—not the sky, but the air itself—turned blue. The day's darting cliff swallows yielded to darting nighthawks and bats. The Blackfoot's became the one voice in the world. Then the river voice, silent pines, blue air, bats and nighthawks merged, just as Maclean promised, into one, which oneness became a joy I began to devour in full-bodied, full-hearted gulps.

The day's long, slow coition of sun and water gave birth to delicate winged insects—clouds of pale evening duns and delicate mayflies, supervening clouds of caddis. Every trout in the river intercepted the clouds at the now lavender, now pumpkin surface, and began to audibly sup. Let me point out to possible bug-haters that not one of these sun-fathered, river-mothered insects bite, sting, pinch, whine, or in any way harass. Come evening they just swim, for the first time ever, to the Blackfoot's shining surface, shed the wet suits they've spent their lives in, open translucent wings they hadn't known they owned, and flutter silently up into evening light, where they hover like angels—to mate like rabbits.

I know it's dangerous to profess bug-love to city denizens whose best-known bug is the cockroach. But if the mine proceeds, these fragile species will be the first to die; industrial dust alone can kill them. So I've got to say it now: the insects I'm praising in that blue light are the publicly owned foundation of a Chain of Life that leads from ocean to cloud to snow to river to water-borne organisms to nymphs to flies to evening rises, trout and joy—and thence to you and me.

This land is your land; these bugs are your bugs; this river is our river; its intact and entire Chain of Life was made for you and me. And when you stand in the Blackfoot during a rising of fish and falling of joy like this, you feel it: immersed in the muscles of the wild river's flow, you feel in your 78 percent-liquid body and steadfast heart how even you, even now, are part of the same wildness and flow.

I'd come to fly-fish, and trout were taking flies everywhere. But as the air turned blue I was first distracted by a dinky trout, not ten feet behind me, that began jumping over and over, ludicrously high in the air. This little guy leapt so high so often that I began to laugh. I mean, all earthly creatures are supposedly opportunists—fish, humans, and transnational corporations alike. By nature we slurp the maximum number of bugs or profit flows via the minimal expenditure of energy, thus aggrandizing our bulk, be it bodily or financial.

But this troutlet was defying its nature. There were flies all over the river, any of which it could have effortlessly sipped. It ignored them all to leap effortfully high into the blue, catch nothing, then fall back with a splash that made the same tidy sound every time: Doip! This trout child was jumping not as a career move but in random celebration (Doip!), jumping the way my four-year-old or a good comedy sometimes jumps (Doip!); jumping in spontaneous, reasonless defiance of the whole tragic idea that every effort on Earth must have a bottom line, profit margin, or edible bug at the end of it (Doip!).

Edified, I turned upstream—and spotted an exceedingly large trout troubling the sunset-colored surface, not 50 feet away. I readied my rod. I studied the strand of now-apricot current upstream of its lie, studied the pragmatic rhythm of its feeding, and tried not to study the width of its head or to imagine the correspondingly sumptuous body, knowing that desire for such bodies is the enemy of artistic skill. But hell, I'm no saint. The trout's head was as thick as my Collected Shakespeare: its body was surely an arm's-length compendium of every color in the river and sky.

Great size implies age, which in trout implies intelligence. My cast would have to be perfect. I'd probably get just one chance. I've watched even great fly-casters go spastic in the presence of big fish at which they'll get one crack. I've gone spastic myself. This night, though, I'd learned a magic word I believed might keep lust from interfering with art. I began waving my wand. Hard-to-describe laws of motion were enacted. Energy gathered and dispersed. Line looped and flew. I noticed, first on the river, then in the sky, that the evening star had shown. Letting fly my one chance, I spoke the magic word into the blue: "Doip!"

A tiny work of fiction—a pale evening dun that was not a pale evening dun—alit on the apricot strand a few feet upstream of my sincerest guess at the trout's position. I stood immersed in the Blackfoot, gulped another chestful of joy, and watched my fragile fiction drift toward the invisible, broad-browed trout.

I'll get back to that trout, believe me. But since I indeed fell, as feared, in love with the river at first sight, there is a Goliath to confront first.

The proposed Blackfoot mine is called the McDonald Gold Project. Its ownership has changed since I cast at that trout, but I'm going to tell the story the way I lived it. In the beginning its dual owners were the mighty Phelps Dodge Corporation of Arizona and Canyon Resources, a small, financially troubled Colorado company. Overwhelmed by the complexity of the project's operating plan, I hired a bright young Harvard grad named Gus Gardner to help me investigate. By "hired" I just mean that Gus, being as in love with and scared for the Blackfoot as I was, gladly went to work for the same wages I did: jack diddly.

With the help of Gus's phone calls, field trips, and mounting piles of notes, I began deciphering the McDonald Project's plan. I had hopes, at first, that it might be as "cutting edge" and safe as the mining companies and Montana's governor claimed. I was shockingly disappointed. Here are just four McDonald Project features, still in the plan today, that the project swears will not harm the Blackfoot in the least:

1. Between the Landers Fork and main stem of the upper Blackfoot, on a pine-covered butte where, as I write, elk are calving and sandhill cranes are nesting, the miners propose to use literal trainloads of ammonium nitrate explosives and an armada of 200-ton earth-moving machines, 24 hours a day for 12 to 20 years, to replace butte, elk, sandhills, and pines with a hole in the earth more than a mile in diameter and as deep as the World Trade Center is tall. This hole would bottom out 700 feet below the adjacent Blackfoot.

The hole would be almost as big as Anaconda Copper Company's nearby Berkeley Pit, one of the worst industrial disasters on the planet, and the source of four separate Superfund sites. (In 1995, 350 snow geese landed on the abandoned and flooded Berkeley Pit and began to drink its waters. They all died.) The McDonald Project proposes, after pocketing its gold profits, to flood the Blackfoot pit with water and abandon it. The estimated 570 million tons of "waste rock" excavated to create the pit would be sculpted into a coffin-shaped riverside mountain—larger than New York's Central Park, taller than the Washington Monument—from which heavy metals, sulfuric acid, and nitrates would leach into the Blackfoot watershed.

2. The project proposes to explode, move, or process 245 tons of rock to obtain a single ounce of gold. The McDonald Meadows deposit is one of the lowest-grade ores anyone has ever attempted to mine on this vast scale. To extract the tiny gold flecks from the crushed rock "heaps," the miners would pour billions of gallons of cyanide-contaminated groundwater over an additional Central Park-size area, upon which heaps of crushed ore would eventually be stacked to twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. The gold flecks would adhere to the cyanide, and be purified and sold. The abandoned heaps would contain metals deadly to all forms of life—lead, mercury, arsenic, zinc, and cadmium, to name a few. To protect the Blackfoot, miners would line the base of the heaps with plastic sheets the thickness of a nickel, and abandon them forever.

3. The McDonald Project would follow the example of Nevada's cyanide gold mines, the largest dewatering projects in the history of humankind. One Nevada mine creates what is called, with no intended irony, a "cone of depression," which removes every drop of groundwater from an area as big as 100 square miles, indiscriminately sucking creeks, wells, springs, ponds, and wetlands dry, and dehydrating the aquifer to depths of 1,000 feet or more.

In place of lost natural springs, marshes, and creeks, the corporate gold miners construct —and abandon—desert reservoirs of poisonous "water" so deadly that a few sips will kill any animal or bird. To prevent wildlife from drinking, they cover the reservoirs with plastic nets or black plastic balls. Ultraviolet light and harsh weather destroy the nets. Strong winds blow aside the balls. Desert-parched animals and birds break through these token barriers anyway, with predictable results: vast biological dead zones, a grievously jeopardized Great Basin Flyway, thousands of bird and animal carcasses strewn round the reservoirs, aquifers too deep for ranchers to reach cost-effectively, toxic or poisoned water when they do reach it.

To dewater the giant pit on the upper Blackfoot, the project plans to pump groundwater at a rate of 10,000 to 15,000 gallons a minute, around the clock, for 12 to 15 years. By the miners' own estimate, the project will lower the upper Blackfoot valley's water table by 1,300 feet. This would lead to two results: wells, wetlands, springs, ponds, and creeks would dry up within the mine's vast "cone of depression," and the billions of gallons of water pumped from the pit would be tainted with lead, mercury, arsenic, zinc, cadmium, and other poisons, and returned to the Blackfoot.

4. Winters on the upper Blackfoot are the harshest in the Lower 48, reaching minus 69 degrees Fahrenheit without even factoring in windchill. The McDonald Project's plan calls this climate "moderate." The lie is purposeful. Cyanide technology was developed in warmer climates for a reason. It depends on huge quantities of running water, and at sub-zero temperatures water isn't water at all. The same icy Blackfoot winters that break household pipes, crack engine blocks, and stop up septic systems will slam into the countless pumps, pipes, drains, filters, cyanide reservoirs, and plastic-liner systems of the mine.

Responsible miners fear this. A recent article in the industry's leading technical magazine, Mining Engineering, admits: "Each year the mining industry pushes the envelope a little further—higher [cyanide] heaps, higher elevations, higher rainfalls and colder climates." The same article warns that the plastic liners used to contain the cyanide reservoirs and pads "begin brittle cracking at temperatures as warm as 23 degrees, despite laboratory results to the contrary."

In tests of its pumping system, McDonald Project pipes burst and pumps broke. Zinc-laden water spilled into the Blackfoot watershed. A 1995 cyanide spill in Guyana killed an entire river, throwing 40,000 farmers and fishermen out of work. In a 1996 settlement, Montana's Zortman-Landusky cyanide mine was forced to pay $37 million for poisoning an aquifer—and animals and children. Phelps Dodge's own Chino, New Mexico, mine has had 25 major poison spills since 1987. One deliberate spill dumped 180 million gallons of toxic waste into ground- and surface water and went unreported for 35 days. Thirteen of Phelps Dodge's properties are being considered for Superfund listing.

The sole American precedent for the McDonald Project is the high-altitude mine at Summitville, Colorado. It froze in winter, burst its plastic containment system, killed 17 miles of the Alamosa River, maimed the Rio Grande, and will eventually cost U.S. taxpayers $170 million in cleanup because its Canadian owner declared bankruptcy and fled.

A woman named Laura Riddell worked at Summitville. In an e-mail to Montana Governor Racicot, she wrote: "I own a waterbed...about the same thickness [as] the pad liner. Imagine taking this liner, laying it on the ground and dumping a couple hundred tons of jagged rock on it. Please check this out. I don't want you to think I'm horror-story-telling. After the breach of the cyanide holding pad occurred, the cyanide-laced water seeped into the groundwater. After a short amount of time the Rio Grande was dead, and I mean even the trees on the bank of the river, along with all water life. There was also a jump in the number of miscarriages and birth defects of people that live along the river. I feel a responsibility for this huge mistake." The cyanide-doused ore-heaps of the McDonald Gold Project would be 52 times bigger than Summitville's.

Right-wing politicians depict the war for Norman's river as a fight between responsible capitalists and "environmental extremists." It is no such thing. This fight is between economically responsible residents and nonresident corporate extremists. The Blackfoot has united conservatives and preservationists, taxidermists and women's groups, priests and gonzo snowboarders, ranchers and vegans, fly fishers and bait-plunkers, cowboys and Indians, Republicans, Realtors, and almost every other category of person living downstream of the proposed mine. What power can unite such antithetical people? The Blackfoot itself is the overwhelming answer. The beauty of A River Runs Through It has helped. But so has the notion of jobs.

The McDonald Project promises 390 full-time short-lived jobs for demolitions experts, equipment operators, and others willing to help rip 245 tons of rock and 2.6 million gallons of water from the earth to produce a single ounce of gold. The companies admit that almost none of their workers will come from this region, and almost none of their profits will stay. They fail to mention a far more crucial fact: the Blackfoot and Lower Clark Fork already give livelihood not to 390, but to thousands, and these existing jobs do not threaten each other, the region's wildlife, or the hundreds of thousands who use the rivers for work, worship, and fun. The McDonald Project, in other words, is a case not of creating new jobs, but of pitting 390 bad jobs against thousands of existing good ones.

Recognition of the Bad Job has been slow to dawn on the national consciousness, but the concept is crucial to the health of regions, nations, and the planet. Building Love Canal, Hanford, Chernobyl, and Bhopal were jobs. Clearcutting the Amazon, stripmining Kentucky, nuking Nevada, exterminating Indians, stealing Africans from their homes and selling them at auction, were all jobs. Unconscionable jobs. In no century soon will we undo the damage wrought by three centuries of unconscionable jobs. Why create 390 more?

There is no way to weave a mining corporation into the life, work, or pleasure of our beautiful river valleys, no way to invite it to coexist rather than prey upon us, because mining corporations are not like the other people who make up the life of a river valley. Mining corporations aren't people at all: they descend like predatory gods from outside the life of a region, force all residents, human and non-, to live by their law of short-term supply and demand, and depart the instant profit margins wane. It's we residents, human and non-, who must live with their post-profit results.

There are people in this region who have fallen in love on the Blackfoot, lost their virginity beside it, lost their lives or loved ones in it, placed their wives', fathers', or children's ashes in it. Doesn't matter to the corporation. The Blackfoot watershed is sacred to the Blackfoot, Kootenai, and Salish tribes, its fish and game promised to them in perpetuity by a treaty that cost them all they once owned. Doesn't matter to the corporation. Tourism and agriculture are the economic heart and lungs of Montana. Gold mining constitutes just .07 percent of Montana's economy and hurts tourism and agriculture in the process.

Economic studies predict the McDonald Project to be a boom-bust disaster for local towns, a devastating blow to tourism and real-estate values, and a huge health and financial risk to every person living and working downstream. None of this matters to the corporation. Cyanide miners are eager to maim us for the simple reason that they have no intention of inhabiting our region, and our long-term suffering will be their short-term profit.

So why, an outsider must wonder, haven't we voted the bums out? The truth is we've tried. But when companies worth billions of dollars "prospect" for cyanide gold sites, they don't send some sourdough named Snuffy up into the hills on a mule. Corporate prospecting is a process in which the staking of claims is blithely incidental compared with the work of purchasing politicians, smothering and bullying opposition, gutting environmental safeguards, dominating the media, burying past travesties, and reinvesting gold profits in lawyers' fees, lobbyists' salaries, and the huge slush funds required to handle the catastrophes that inevitably accompany this technology.

One painful example: in 1995 Montana's governor and Republican-ruled legislature took some of the best water-quality standards in the Rockies and turned them, against the will of the people, into some of the worst. Their aim: to open up the state to cyanide and other mining. Forty thousand citizen volunteers fought back at once, placing a Clean Water Initiative on the 1996 ballot that could have required new mines to remove 80 percent of pollutants from their wastewater before discharging into Montana's rivers. (Sewage-treatment plants remove 85 percent.)

Clean Water was initially supported by 67 percent of the populace. The corporations struck back. In the final weeks before the vote they unleashed a newspaper, radio, and TV disinformation campaign so prodigiously funded that, as one observer said, it could have defeated the Bill of Rights. The average campaign donation in support of Clean Water was $167—a lot of money for some river-loving schoolteacher, rancher, or fishing guide. The average anti donation was 48 times greater. Phelps Dodge and two Canadian companies kicked in $500,000 apiece.

While journalists were beating the militia, Unabomber, and Freemen stories to death, Montana's publicly owned rivers received next to no national mention, and international mining money beat grassroots democracy to death. Clean Water lost 57 percent to 43 percent.

On the day Clean Water lost, tens of thousands of acts of self-giving were negated by nothing more artful than money and lies. In the dark winter months that followed, the defenders of Norman's river went right on giving of themselves anyway. That's when I began, for no reason my mind could come up with, to feel crazy waves of hope. The flow of courage, perseverance, and generosity this river has inspired in its admirers has been as beautiful to watch as the river itself. A comprehensive list is impossible, but here is a sample of things people have done:

A group of activists organized a "Mine Your Jewelry Box, Not the Blackfoot" movement that has inspired scores of women to raise resistance money by donating heirloom gold jewelry. A group of river residents, The Blackfoot Legacy, hired a renowned economist to do a McDonald Project study, which blew the corporate portrait of the mine's "local benefits" out of the water. Scores of whitewater and fishing guides have refused to let clients on the water till they agree to write letters protesting the mine.

Filmmakers have made fine Blackfoot documentaries without hope of even covering costs. One filmmaker, donning a T-shirt that read, "Pure water is more precious than gold," parked himself beside the mining industry's opulent booth at the 1997 Montana State Fair and gave away copies of his film A River Cries to anyone who'd chat about the mine. Attorneys have donated a fortune in legal advice, artists a fortune in artwork, while pilots have donated flights to give scientists and filmmakers aerial perspective on the site. Musicians Greg Brown, Jen Adams, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Keb' Mo', and Bonnie Raitt have all put on fabulous benefit concerts in support of the river.

Writer Richard Manning gave a year of his life to One Round River, a nonfiction tour de force on the Blackfoot's history and fight for life, while writer Annick Smith donated her time, even as she was losing her father, to compile Headwaters, a literary anthology in which 30 writers celebrate the ways a healthy Blackfoot serves us all. Thousands of people have donated cash, auctionable gifts, great food, high spirits, and many hours to keep resistance alive.

Thousands more have taken news of the threat to river-access points, fishing lodges, football games, concerts, classrooms, parades, National Public Radio, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, CBS, Turner Broadcasting, metals-market investors, and all over the nation. One small river-watchdog group, The Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Coalition, has fought off lawsuits, slim funding, gloomy basement offices, and despair to serve as clearinghouse, coordinator, instigator, and inspirer of almost all these efforts.

And in September 1997 our resistance met an unhoped-for result. In a document titled An Open Letter to Our Montana Neighbors, the Phelps Dodge Corporation announced that it was abandoning the McDonald Project, ceding its 72 percent share to its minority partner, Canyon Resources, and leaving Montana. Canyon Resources is so indebted and has such terrible credit that no American bank would lend it money last year. Against an industry average of plus 12 percent, Canyon Resources' profits are minus 24 percent. For those of us fighting the mine, last year's irrational hope has become this year's reasonable one: the Blackfoot has a hell of a chance at survival.

For our ragtag river army to take the bows for Phelps Dodge's departure would be rash. Falling gold prices and the huge cyanide gold investment fraud known as Bre-X are two probable contributing factors. But the ferocity of the Blackfoot's defenders is a surefire third. This region is like a jostled beehive. In reaching for what first seemed like easy honey, Phelps Dodge was stung again and again. These stings weren't just annoyances, either. They cost what such companies value most: money.

The McDonald Project partners claim to have spent over $50 million in their quest for Blackfoot gold. The only way this money will be recouped is if Canyon Resources brings the project back on line. But tens of thousands of river lovers have their eyes glued on Canyon, vowing to mount as many ballot initiatives, benefit concerts, op-eds, lawsuits, brewfests, protests, and agape expressions of river love as it takes to keep cyanide heap-leachers off the Blackfoot forever.

Maclean said it best: "All good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy." The continued life and safety of our river may not come easy. But thanks to "Our Neighbors at McDonald Meadows" we've learned that to join hands and fight like maniacs in the name of living water, wildlife, mayflies, children, grace, art, and salvation is damned satisfying. No reason to quit when we're having so much fun.

In the Blackfoot's high mountain headwaters, snow falls for seven months or more, collecting in immense, sun-defying mounds. Then the planet tilts toward solstice, the angle of sunlight grows acute, and the banks begin to pay out their wealth. Drop by drop these clean, pure riches melt, congeal, obey gravity, and start seaward, filling everything they touch with life. I stood immersed to the waist in this vast liquidation, watching a tiny fiction ride an apricot strand of water. Then the pale evening dun that was not a dun reached the point where the trout had risen. And it rose again.

I lifted my rod. The trout slammed it back down. I gulped joy. The trout gulped Blackfoot. Disbelief in our opposite fortunes froze us for a moment. Then the trout, with great tailfuls of river, began trying to douse the sky's single star—and a tiny answering splash promptly sounded behind us: Doip! I laughed out loud.

The big trout took off, running so fast downriver it could have reached the Pacific in a day or two. I set out in pursuit on a river-hampered run of my own, and used my magic wand to charm it into staying in Montana with me. Four pounds easy, the threatened West Slope cutthroat I finally held under a fully starred, moonless sky. Yet the trout's cold sides, as I freed it, shone even by starlight a hint of the sun-made pinks, teals, and pumpkins that had filled the world all evening.

Back home later than late, I greeted my wife, dogs, and daughters with an apology so bogus, so brimful of the joys I'd stood immersed in, that I may as well have been toting an "I'M NOT SORRY!" placard round the room. I didn't dare ask forgiveness when it was obvious even to the dogs that I'd gladly do it all over again. What I did ask, the very next evening, was whether my six-year-old cared to join me on the Blackfoot, my thought being that her limited endurance would force domestic grace upon me.

What happened instead was that the rafts again left the water, the wind ceased in the pines, the convergences, comedies, and ecstasies that are a Blackfoot River evening rise descended, and my little girl embraced, comprehended, and refused to relinquish it all. Now she too is a joy-junkie, incapable of guilt, the teals and apricots gleaming in her eyes. Now it's me going, "Jeez, we gotta get home for dinner," while she cackles, "Never! It's not dark! See the stars in the river!" It's so hard to believe there are those who would steal the life from these waters and that look from her eyes!

May our love live and grow.

In Search of River-Safe Gold

Stopping our Blackfoot mine won't touch a greater problem. Cyanide heap-leach gold mining is an act of aggression that devastates like war. And it's global. From New Guinea to Brazil, Africa to the American West, cyanide mining companies are ruining land, water, and regional economies, pocketing profits, paying off Congress and other colluding governments, and saddling citizens, unborn children, and the earth itself with the true costs.

Europe has banned heap-leach gold mining. But Europe is not governed by laws like President Ulysses S. Grant's heinously anachronistic 1872 Mining Act, which offers public land to hard-rock miners for $5 an acre, nor by the Three Stooges­like self-sabotage of three branches of government that allow this decrepit law to keep emptying all our wallets at tax time and devastating our wildlands. How can we respond?

The best approach I know is simply to avoid buying gold. Some 84 percent of gold becomes jewelry. More than enough gold to meet world demand is produced by recycling or as a by-product of far safer kinds of mining. To celebrate a romance or special occasion with gold that arrives over the dead bodies of aquifers, wildlife, and watersheds is hardly romantic. It's time we led our leaders.

We have dolphin-safe tuna, bans on ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, bans on ivory to protect the African elephant. We do not have human-safe, wildlife-safe, or river-safe gold. Investigate sources. Ask how your gold was mined. And if your jeweler can't answer, if you can't find a cyanide-free source, picture an avocet sipping poison in our dying Great Basin Flyway; picture the dead cottonwoods still lining the lifeless Alamosa; picture your own squandered tax dollars, the living Blackfoot, your children's dying world—and don't buy gold at all.

How to Send The Gold Diggers Packing

With key committees in both chambers of Congress dominated by pro-mining forces, the prospects for comprehensive reform of federal mining law are dim. But Sierra Club members can still fight destructive mining projects— and win—at the local level.

In Montana, Sierra Club members have joined with other conservationists, fishing groups, and local landowners to help save the Blackfoot River from the vast McDonald Gold Project. We also hope to stop Asarco from building a three-mile-long tunnel underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness to extract copper and silver near the Montana/Idaho border. The Rube Goldberg scheme would leave large underground "rooms" beneath the wilderness, possibly causing wildland to subside and lakes to disappear.

Mining activists working on those battles can take heart from recent developments in Wisconsin, where conservationists recently scared one of the planet's biggest polluters out of the North Woods. A huge Exxon copper mine threatened the headwaters of the Wolf River, a valuable fishery and recreation corridor that's part of the federal Wild and Scenic River System.

In early 1995 the possibility of losing this place to acid-mine drainage and heavy-metals pollution brought together 64 different groups, many of which had never collaborated before. Conservationists of all persuasions, Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural residents, hunters and anglers and Native American tribes—all were able to put aside their differences. Unions, including locals of the United Steelworkers and United Auto Workers, began organizing to oppose the mine, too, putting the lie to Exxon's claims that organized labor was firmly in its camp.

Supported by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and the mining industry's pet "wise-use" group, People for the West, Exxon countered with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. But environmentalists persevered. Billboards highlighted the threat to Wisconsin's waters, and news events kept the publicıs attention on the issue. Wisconsin's John Muir Chapter created a hard-hitting radio ad asking state legislators to pass a bill that would protect their state from the ravages of mining. Then, scores of volunteers worked in phone banks across the state, generating calls to swing votes. One Republican assemblyman reportedly received more than 500 calls before his tormented staff turned off his telephone system.

The efforts paid off. In February the Wisconsin state legislature enacted a moratorium on all state permits for hardrock mines. The ban will be lifted only when the state can certify that at least one similar North American mine has operated safely for ten years and one has remained safe ten years after shutdown. A few years ago such a moratorium seemed unthinkable. The day after the measure passed, Exxon announced it was selling its entire interest in the project.

That sends an important message to mining activists everywhere: good organizing and outreach to new allies can save wild places and send gold diggers packing.—Kathryn Hohmann, Sierra Club Director of Environmental Quality For more information on the McDonald Gold Project and the Blackfoot River, contact the Clark Fork­Pend Oreille Coalition at P.O. Box 7593, Missoula, MT 59807; (406) 542-0539; e-mail You can fax your thoughts on the project to Montana Governor Marc Racicot at (406) 444-5529 or write him at Capitol Station, Helena, MT 59620. To find out more about the Sierra Club's proposed mining reforms, contact Kathryn Hohmann at or 408 C St. N.E., Washington, DC 20002.

Digging Deeper

The Washington, D.C.­based Mineral Policy Center provides excellent resources for conservationists interested in mining issues. Founded by former Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall and former Sierra Club Director Philip Hocker, the group recently published Golden Dreams, Poisoned Streams: How Reckless Mining Pollutes America's Water, and How We Can Stop It. The well-illustrated 269-page paperback details the ecological impacts of mining and analyzes regulatory problems and fixes. It's available for $24.95 from the Mineral Policy Center, 1612 K St. N.W., Suite 808, Washington, DC 20006; (202) 887-1872; fax (202) 887-1875; e-mail

The Mineral Policy Center also has offices in Durango, Colorado, and Bozeman, Montana. An arresting visual display of the devastation left in mining's wake is offered in Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape (Aperture, 1997). The 160-page book features aerial photos of everything from mines to missile sites by David T. Hanson, whose photography has won awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. It is available for $40 from Aperture, 20 E. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010; (212) 598-4205; fax (212) 598-4015.

One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot (Henry Holt, 1997) is an eloquent biography of a roaded, logged, mined, and grazed Montana watershed. The 222-page hardback is also an urgent plea for help in a battle royal. "We who organize our lives according to this river must focus now away from the various eddies of our own lives," says author Richard Manning. "Our attention is riveted straight upstream."

David James Duncan is the author of two philosophic and comedic novels, The River Why (Sierra Club Books, 1983) and The Brothers K (Bantam, 1996), and a collection of stories and other writings about life in the Pacific Northwest, River Teeth (Bantam, 1996).

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

Up to Top

HOME | Email Signup | About Us | Contact Us | Terms of Use | © 2008 Sierra Club