The Big Blackfoot has inspired a novel, a movie,
andmost recentlyan 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 novela 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
advanceall $3,000to 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
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 dieor 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 fellas feared, and secretly desiredheart over head in
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 wardrobethe
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 airnot the sky, but the air itselfturned 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
insectsclouds 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
angelsto 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 joyand 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 opportunistsfish,
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 upstreamand 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
A tiny work of fictiona pale evening dun that was not a pale evening
dunalit 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
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 mountainlarger than New York's Central Park,
taller than the Washington Monumentfrom 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 lifelead, 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 abandondesert 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
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 furtherhigher [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
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 aquiferand 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
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
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
$167a 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
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
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
Maclean said it best: "All good thingstrout as well as eternal
salvationcome 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 starand 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
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
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 worldand 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
winat 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 tribesall 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com or 408 C St. N.E.,
Washington, DC 20002.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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,