Twenty-nine years ago record drought and fires hit the West and no one seemed to notice. Frustrated, I sent query letters to the three largest East Coast newspapers, and to my surprise, The New York Times answered. My article on the West’s drought and fires ran in August 1988 in the New York Times Magazine and was syndicated and distributed world-wide.
Here we are again.
In many areas of the Northern Great Plains the 2017 drought and fires are worse. And again, the news media is hardly noticing and that is not surprising for us who live in “fly over country.”
We want the politicians and reporters to notice, but not for the reasons some might think. We are not standing beaten down, hat in hand, wanting a handout. We are taking care of our own, like rural folk do, and we wish the big city elites would learn from us. We are community here. We are rural strong.
While much of the West is on fire, Montana has been particularly hard hit. An estimated 1,100,000 acres have burned — that’s approximately 17,200 square miles, (Editors Note: twice the size of New Jersey and two-fifths larger than Maryland) — and numerous fires are still burning out of control. Thick blankets of hazardous smoke are forcing people to stay indoors and are forcing the cancellation of outdoor events.
Two main factors are at play here. One, is drought. Some parts of Eastern Montana have had only one inch of rain all year. Number two, is federal forest policies.
Take the Lodgepole Complex Fire for an example. It started on July 19 by a lightning strike on a Wilderness Study Area on Bureau of Land Management land. WSAs are a strange beast. They are not actually designated wilderness, but they are treated that way. In other words, neighboring landowners better not rush into a WSA to extinguish a fire. There are 545 BLM WSAs in America totaling 12,790,291 acres. Having the benefits of a wilderness designation without actually being a wilderness area, access into WSAs is restricted. Restricted access contributed to the Lodgepole Complex becoming a 300,000-acre inferno affecting some 350 landowners and leasees.
The government was slow to respond, but not so the rural population. A firestorm this spring caused huge devastation and took human life in the Midwest. The media hardly noticed then, either, but farmers, ranchers, and ag-related businesses did. Help came to areas of Texas and Kansas from as far away as Illinois and Michigan and homegrown relief agencies sprouted to handle the needs of the next catastrophe.
The next catastrophe came quickly.
Rural citizens across America responded to help victims of the Lodgepole Complex Fire. To date, over $750,000 in cash and 375 semi-loads of hay have been donated to the citizens of Petroleum and Garfield Counties in Eastern Montana. Children have offered their piggy banks and their prize money won at county fairs; farmers have delivered hay from as far away as Virginia; businessmen have donated fencing supplies; and college students have volunteered their labor on fencing crews. Cowboys from all over the state came to help gather strayed cattle.
In Western Montana, federal forest policies have created a tinder box. The United States Forest Service estimates there are 6.3 billion dead trees in the forests of eleven western states. Radical environmentalists, often using taxpayer money through the Equal Access for Justice Act, have jammed courts with legislation to keep loggers out of our nation’s forests. Mind you, I am not talking about wilderness areas here. I am talking about millions of acres of forest managed by the USFS. Without proper logging management, timber stands become too thick, the trees weaken, and pine beetles and other scourges set in. Mix in drought and lightning, and vast timberlands go ablaze in infernos only heavy rain or snow can contain.
Fires aside, the Northern Plains is suffering terrible drought. In some areas grass has not grown for two years. Many cattle have already gone to auction as stock ponds, reservoirs, wells, and springs are dry. Cattle are perishing in bogs, the mud hole a stock pond becomes when the water is gone and dying to dust pneumonia as livestock might trail two or three miles to water, creating a thick dust cloud that is breathed-in by the animals at the back.
While 2017 will go down in the record books in Montana for fire and drought, most of us here have seen it nearly this bad before. This isn’t our first rodeo. We will get by with a little help from our friends. “Neighbor” is a verb here, not a noun. “Neighboring” is something we do and even local bankers become good neighbors in times like these.
The politics of national news means states with few electoral votes are ignored. That’s okay. The victims of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma need help. We understand that here on the dusty plains. We are not screaming to get our share of a handout.
We simply wish someone would notice, and emulate, how rural Americans have learned to give one another a hand-up.