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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

One Round River

Air Date: Week of

Gold expresses itself wherever water wells up out of the earth, and that occurs where there are mountains and rivers. The Blackfoot River in western Montana is one of these rivers. Made famous by the book and movie “A River Runs Through It," the river that people saw in the movie was actually the Gallatin, since logging and mining have ruined much of the Blackfoot. Now the river faces what may be its biggest threat. Despite some opposition, a giant gold mine is rising along its banks. Steve Curwood spoke with Richard Manning, who lived near the Blackfoot for many years, and has written a book called “One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot.”


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Gold expresses itself wherever water wells up out of the earth, and that happens wherever there are mountains and rivers. The Blackfoot River in western Montana is one of these rivers. The Blackfoot was made famous by the book and movie "A River Runs Through It," but the river that people saw in the movie was actually the Gallatin. Logging and mining destroyed much of the Blackfoot, and now the river faces what may be its biggest threat. Despite some protests, a giant gold mine is rising along its banks. Richard Manning lived near the Blackfoot for many years, and he's written a book called One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot. He joined us recently to talk about his book, and he started out by confessing how he got its title.

MANNING: I stole it.

CURWOOD: Stole it?

MANNING: (Laughs) That's where people tend to get titles. But I tend to steal from the best, and I stole from Aldo Leopold. Aldo Leopold some time ago wrote a wonderful essay called "One Round River," and he just came up with the idea that now wait a minute, what if our rivers were round? That is to say, what if the mouth of the river, the end of it dumped into its headwaters? So everything that we dumped in the river came right back around to haunt us again. How would we behave differently as humans? I think that's a vital question. And what I try to make or argue in the book is that they really are round, and the joke here is on us, that those things do come back to haunt us.

CURWOOD: This proposed mine, they've got a lot of earth to move to get to the gold, don't they?

MANNING: They'll dig a hole that's visible from space, which is true of almost all of the gold mines being built in the United States right now.

CURWOOD: Visible from space? What do you mean? How big is this thing?

MANNING: It would be about a mile across, and about three quarters of a mile wide, and about 1,800 feet deep. It's a very large hole.

CURWOOD: Now, you write that image lies at the root of the problem. What do you mean by that?

MANNING: In the specific case of gold, our idea is really what causes us to pursue it. If we think about it, gold really has no value. Its primary use in this country and worldwide for that matter is in jewelry, which is an idea. It's an idea of status, and it's an idea of what makes us look good. But beyond that, I'm more concerned with the idea of the West, and the mythology of the West, and the idea that the real landscape is being forced to conform to now by being remade into somebody's vision of the way cowboys lived 100 years ago, or the way mountain bikers ought to live today.

CURWOOD: In your book you make a rather interesting distinction between logging on one hand and mining on the other. Both of these clearly damage the environment if they're not done properly. So what's the difference?

MANNING: We have this buzzword in the environmental movement and in general these days: sustainability. And everybody is kind of searching for the Holy Grail of sustainability. How we conduct our lives in a way that can go on forever. And while there are all sorts of problems with logging and ranching and we know about those and we've dealt with them, we have to come back to a fundamental fact that both of those enterprises rest on the continued health of the environment in some way. In other words, you can't be a logger or your son or daughter can't be loggers unless trees grow in the future. That's not true of mining. Mining is inherently unsustainable. It does not deal in the life cycle. Its announced purpose is to go and dig up something that is dead and move on to the next place. And so, it belongs in a completely different category than logging and ranching.

CURWOOD: You write at one point that you have no interest in providing balance to this story. Hey, I thought you're a journalist here.

MANNING: Yeah, I am a journalist. I still am a journalist. And I don't think it's a journalist's job to provide balance. It's very much like a crime reporter trying to write about a mugging in which he was the victim. My body is made up of water and air, and when those things are fouled by the people in industries around me, then I'm personally threatened by that. And to not admit that I'm personally threatened by that is simply not being in possession of all the facts.

CURWOOD: You bring up the question of action against the mine. And you write, "I would kill someone in a heartbeat if I thought it could stop that mine." That's a pretty tough statement. Do you mean it?

MANNING: Yeah, I'm afraid I do. I don't mean that statement in isolation, though. Because and I thought long and hard before I wrote that, and it just came out of my keyboard one day. And then I had the decision, do I leave it there or do I take that out? Because I know it's going to cause controversy, and I know it'll cause people to misread the book, or to misinterpret it as a call for violence. And I'm not doing that at all. What I mean to say there, and why I said it that way, is and I go on to say, if it would make a difference, and I know that it wouldn't. And I phrase it that way because I want people to understand that the strongest possible action that anyone could imagine would be to kill someone to stop that mine. And if I took that strongest possible action, nothing would happen. There would be no scenario that I could imagine that would lead my killing someone to stopping that mine. That's how inexorable these forces are. That's why we can't stop these mines, or really can't think through the degradation we're causing the environment. Because these forces are set in motion by things that can't even be stopped or started by murder.

CURWOOD: What's the legacy of mining in the United States?

MANNING: The best way to answer that, I think, is to go up another fork of the Clark Fort River, of which the Blackfoot is one. And that flows 130 miles upstream to Butte. Butte's a mining town, and Butte is where our history of mining is written in a big way. And you remember, I described the size of the pit that this gold mine would be. There's almost exactly the same size pit at Butte. But that stems from mining that goes back about 100 years. It's a Federal Superfund site, as is most of the Clark Fort River. One of the most polluted places in the United States. That mining has existed for 100 years and still, still there are no solutions. There's nothing, even on paper, to say this is how we're going to deal with this issue, this is how we're going to clean this up. There are hundreds of such sites around the Western United States. The legacy of mining is one of severe problems and of problems that we simply haven't dealt with, despite the fact they've been on our plate for generations.

CURWOOD: Richard Manning's latest book is called One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot. Thanks, Richard, for joining us.

MANNING: Thank you, Steve.



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