28 April 2011

Skywatch Friday: Continental Divide, East & West

At 6,000 feet along the Continental Divide in southwest Montana, spring can come slowly. But then one day the air feels different, and though we will have frosty nights and another blizzard or two, it's really spring. To keep one's life in a sort of Zen balance, it's time to take in both sides of the Great Divide. Like these specimens of the Boulder Batholith on a ridge overlooking my home, we seek a dynamic tension. Here, a conversation between earth & sky (and gravity):

Like a Zen kōan the two sides have a contrasting nature that must be reconciled. Butte, Montana, lies on the dark side of the mountain with its water polluted by copper mining waste flowing to the Pacific Ocean. In this panoramic photo, you can see the old, abandoned Berkeley Pit on the right and billionaire Dennis Washington's ("Montana Resources") still-operating East Pit (aka "Continental Pit") on the left (zoom in and check it out):

The awesome beauty of these environmentally horrific mining operations are sort of a kōan within a kōan, as this close-up photo of the Berkeley Pit (filled with highly toxic water) shows:

Not shown in the photos above is the Yankee Doodle Tailings "pond," an artificial lake of several square miles where Washington dumps his waste from the Montana Resources/East Pit operation (note that the surface is still frozen over):

The earthen dam that holds this mess back is several hundred feet high. If it failed, as earthen dams sometimes do, it would make a huge splash in the Berkeley Pit into which it drains. To give you some idea of the sheer size of the Yankee Doodle Tailings, here's a closeup--showing a huge mining truck dumping mine waste to heighten the breast of the dam; the huge mining truck is that tiny dot on the raised portion of the dam, center right:

Yet somehow, nature endures. There was sign from a herd of mule deer, including this recently shed antler:

And MollyTheDog flushed several Blue Grouse. I wasn't quick enough with the camera to catch their flight, but the tracks were pretty slow and I could sneak up on them:

Speaking of MTD, turns out she's a mountain dog, scrambling over the boulder-strewn ridges like a champ:

The next day, Mrs Rover and I took a hike up a favorite wash along the Big Hole River, whose relatively pristine waters drain to the Atlantic Ocean. Hmmm... what's this? A dead Mule Deer Buck. Wonder what killed it?

Oh, here's another dead Mulie, a yearling. From the way it's been skinned out, it looks (and smells!) like the work of M. Tn. Lion. Well, Cougars have to eat too, the dead noursish the living, and nature endures:

How happy we were to see the first flowers of spring, including this incredibly lush bouquet of Hooker's Townsendia (Townsendia hookeri):

And the lovely, if tiny, blooms of Hood's Phlox (Phlox hoodi):

The ant people too are welcoming spring as they frantically work to clear their tunnels and bring in food for a new generation:

Happy Spring!

24 April 2011

Skywatch Friday: Happy Earth Day

In the Rocky Mountains of southwest Montana, it's still winter in fits and starts. Here, a snow storm cell sits over the city of Butte, dropping some fluffy white:

As you might imagine, people are getting grumpy about this cool, wet spring. Human people, that is. For others, such as MollyTheDog, "It's all good." Here she is, romping on our walk to school one morning:

Dave Carter and I take a hike out in the hills once or twice a week. Last week, on a hike up a steep ridge grom a gulch near the Big Hole River, Dave found this outstanding obsidian tool, left by some Native American a long time ago:

Probably a knife point based on the asymmetry (projectile points need to be well-balanced). It had broken off in a classic "hinge" fracture (as a boy, how many steel knife tips did I break off, despite Gramps' warnings "Don't pry with that knife!"):

There is no naturally occurring obsidian in the Big Hole. Nearest sources are near Yellowstone National Park more than 100 miles away. The location of the find, looking uphill, is in the photo below. We hypothesized that the hunter shot an elk up near the treeline, it ran downhill and died, and Dave found the tool at the butchering site. A writer friend Paul Vang asked, "Why an elk? Why not a deer or sheep?" Well, we found elk sign in the area and it's not really mule deer (or antelope) habitat. Could've been a big horned sheep, though. But it's OUR story.

From the top of timbered ridge, here's a view to some nearby mountains. It'll be June before the snow melts off enough to hike there:

A century or so ago, this area (like much of the western U.S.) was mined extensively. Most of the remains from that era are rotting back into the earth, but occasionally someone has made an effort to preserve an artifact like this old cabin. Wonder what kind of tin cans they peeled open to make those roofing tiles?

Here's a couple of old miners standing guard at the drift, protecting their claim:

There are still a few dreamers around hoping to strike it rich. According to federal law, you have to "stake your claim" by marking it in a prescribed manner:

Mining? It's for the birds. Or so says this mountain bluebird, waiting for enough bugs to wake up so that he can feed nestlings:

Wherever you live, I hope you have a chance to get outside and enjoy the natural world that is our most valuable inheritance. Happy Earth Day! Be good to your mother.

15 April 2011

Superfund News for the Upper Clark Fork River Basin

[The following post is modified from my Montana Public Radio commentary on behalf of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee.]

It must be springtime: Green bitterroot rosettes dot the Butte Hill; furry catkins decorate the pussy willows behind my house; and it’s pledge week on Montana Public Radio. Oh yes, and in Butte we woke to several inches of fresh snow yesterday.

It’s a busy time for Superfund in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.

The Beal Mountain project, an open-pit gold mine, operated in the 1990s. It was billed as a state-of-the-art mine that would boost the economy without harming the environment. The company declared bankruptcy, as gold mining corporations always seem to do, when the price of gold went down and the ore petered out. (photo of Beal open pit below by A Berger)

The bond proved too small to cover the cost of closure and cleanup. To date, the National Forest has spent nine million dollars on cleanup and estimates another forty million to complete the fix. Meanwhile, selenium and cyanide poison the aquifer and native cutthroat trout, and it costs five hundred thousand dollars a year to maintain current cleanup operations. (project map below from U.S. Forest Service)

Beal Mountain drains to German Gulch, an important tributary of Silver Bow Creek. Like all abandoned open pit mines, it is a ticking time bomb and a perpetual reminder of a failed technology. As one of the last strongholds of native Westslope Cutthroat Trout in the Butte area, we can only hope that pollution from this mine doesn't wipe them out. (photo below: Westslope Cutthroat Trout in German Gulch Creek by EcoRover)

Superfund cleanup in Butte appears stalled despite mounting public pressure to deal with failed remedies at the Montana Pole Plant and Parrot Tailings. At the pole plant, mine timbers were treated with highly toxic organic chemicals that polluted soil and groundwater. Arco, now Arco-British Petroleum, was ordered to begin cleanup in 1993. The low-cost in situ cleanup has not worked, and large amounts of soil need to be excavated to remove threats to human and environmental health. (photo below from NBC Montana)

Lucky for Butte, we have a handful of environmental activists that hold Arco-BP and EPA accountable for failures and bad decisions. Some work with the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee or CTEC. Like CFRTAC, CTEC is a citizens’ group that works with the agency to promote public education and participation in the Superfund process. Civic leaders such as Professor John Ray, a political science and communications professor with Montana Tech (photo from Tech web site):

There are other routes to realizing our duties as a citizen. Fritz Daily, a former legislator involved with Superfund for the past thirty years, is a member of a group that has filed a lawsuit against the State of Montana regarding the name of Silver Bow Creek. At its headwaters, the Anaconda Copper Company and the city of Butte long ago began referring to the creek as “the Metro Storm Drain.” The name change was never official. Sadly, the state accepted this designation and now defends it in court. (Photo below of Metro Storm Drain/Silver Bow Creek by Chris Gammons )

The rhetorical power of this hat trick is evident. By referring to a stream as a storm drain, the stream may be treated as an industrial sewer instead of as a protected natural resource.  Thus the people of Montana – especially Butteians – are denied the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

As Fritz Daly and other members of the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition assert, this is an important issue that affects all Montanans. We simply cannot allow state government to arbitrarily rename public waterways in ways that undermine the Public Trust Doctrine and our right to enjoy natural resources.

A new gold mine is slated to begin commercial production next year in the Highland Mountains south of Butte. Though currently an underground mine, Senate Bill 306 would allow this and other ventures to operate as open-pit gold mines and ship ore to cyanide leach facilities. Senator Murphy of Cardwell, where the Golden Sunlight open-pit mine and failed cyanide leach tanks/tailings ponds are located,* is the sponsor. But it has also attracted support from other legislators, such as Jon Sesso  a pro-mining, anti-environment Democrat from Butte. The Governor has vowed to veto this bad idea, so by the time you read this, SB 306 could be dead. 
(Jon Sesso photo from KTVQ)

(Governor Schweitzer with his VETO branding iron, photo from The Missoulian)

Open-pit gold mines? Bad idea. Failed technology.

When this commentary aired on Montana Public Radio, I incorrectly stated that Golden Sunlight (GS) had leach pads. Instead, GS employs large, 900,000 gallon leach tanks and open tailings ponds. Since 1983, the tanks and ponds have leaked tens of millions of gallons of cyanide solution, severely polluting the local aquifer and water wells. I thank Tara Mastel of the Jefferson Local Development Corporation for helping me clarify this.

14 April 2011

Skywatch Friday: Springtime in the Rockies, Dancing Cranes, Talking Ravens

It's spring in the northern Rocky Mountains of Southwest Montana. Some days, we wake up to fresh snow (view to the East Ridge of the Continental Divide, Butte Montana; note the open-pit copper mine against the ridge, and the 80-foot tall statue of "Our Lady of the Rockies"on the ridge just above the large blasting scar):

On a trip to the nearby Big Hole River valley (East Slope/Mississippi R; Butte is West Slope/Columbia R), we saw the annual dance of a pair of Rocky Mountain Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). Though they mate for life, each year they go through this ritual before breeding. First they greet:

Then they strut, often in step with one another:

And then they dance:


Meanwhile, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) soared high overhead:

We didn't dance or fly, but we did stop for burgers at the Wise River Club (pictured from left: Mrs Rover, Emma MacKenzie, Rose MacKenzie, and in front, MollyTheDog):

I usually walk to and from work at my little college, and over the years I've gotten to know the local ravens. I was pouring a cup of coffee and watching out my office when one flew by, and so I said "Hi!" (in Ravenspeak, that's "Quork!"). Sure enough, Raven landed on the building across from my window:

Assumed the characteristic posture:

And we had a nice chat:

You can listen to the language of the Raven People at the Cornell Ornithology Lab website.

Ah, life in a preterite mining town. Just below my home in Walkerville, I noticed emergency vehicles and warning cones. Hmmm... what's this? A giant pothole?

Oh yeah, "subsidence." An old mine shaft has collapsed, opening up a car-sized hole in the pavement above. The neighbor told me his son was parked there overnight and everything was OK when he drove off to school this morning (lucky!):

Robin Hood! Snow or shine, I try to shoot a few arrows from my new longbow every day. Back in the day when I shot competitive archery with a recurve target bow and aluminum arrows, it was not uncommon to shoot an arrow into another arrow, peeling it open like a can-opener. This is called a "Robin Hood." I didn't think it was possible with wooden cedar arrows. Oops... I guess it is:

Well, not to be a whiner, but it can stop snowing any day now. If you're experiencing sunny weather, send some this way!

07 April 2011

SkywatchFriday: April is the Cruelest Month... (and a boy's thoughts turn to ARCHERY!)

T.S. Eliot could have been a Montana when, in his poem "The Wasteland," he wrote:
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Indeed. Our sunny moments are interspersed with popcorn snow and wind that cuts to the bone:

Still, it is spring, and time to get on with those resolutions--such as rediscovering the joys of archery (and come September, bowhunting):

I owe this to my former student, Jana Robertson. As the daughter (she's named for Ishi's tribe) of famed bowyer Dick Robertson of Robertson Stykbow, she is of course a bowhuntress. Her example, along with some of my friends and other former students around Butte, Montana, was just the push I needed. Having bowhunted from c. 1970 to 1985 (and having shot varsity archery while at Drexel U), I knew my piles (arrow points) from my cocks (index feathers).

Growing up, the kids in my neighborhood often roved the fields and hills with bows. Some were homemade from a hickory stave, some were solid fiberglass from the hardware store. Arrows were whatever we could find and we shot 'til our fingers were sore. As I turned back to archery, these childhood memories became palpable.

Job one: find a bow. That was a fun task, and thanks to the miracle of EBay I found an excellent deal on a lightly used Martin Savannah longbow (reflex-deflex) design:

Job two: assemble arrows. Though I shot cheap hardware-store wooden arrows as a kid, in later years for bowhunting I used fiberglass and for target archery I used aluminum. But I wanted to do this as "traditional archery" and that meant wooden sticks, dipped with several coats of gasket laquer (with a homemade dip-tube and gasket):

Hung to dry in the shower with the vent fan on:

And fletched with "real" feathers, that led to job three: shooting. Results have been encouraging. When I do everything right (draw, anchor, aim, squeeze back, release, and follow through) groups are pretty good up to about 25 yards:

I still have a lot of practicing to do between now and hunting season. Stay posted.