One Round River, by Richard Manning, is a book about the ecosystem of the Blackfoot River, which runs by his home near Missoula, Montana. The title implies that everything is connected, and moves in circles. Manning presents the history of the region in a number of acts.
We begin with geological history, and the vast lakes that formed and flooded at the end of the last Ice Age. He describes the Salish tribe, who enjoyed a good life in the region, until the white man’s horses arrived, and intensified inter-tribal conflict. But the horses did not cause as many problems as the white men, who came later, and went crazy on the land, with their grazing, logging, mining, ecocide, and genocide.
The grasslands and the buffalo had coevolved magnificently. The original vegetation remained nutritious year-round, so the Indians did not have to haul in hay bales for winter feed. Buffalo were fine-tuned for surviving in a semi-arid climate with severe winters. Then the whites came with their northern European cattle, which had evolved to thrive in wetter climates with mild winters. The whites planted many species of northern European vegetation, which led to many unintended negative consequences. Cattle stayed close to the streams, where they removed the vegetation, and promoted erosion and flooding. Cattle do not belong in the western United States.
Damage to the streams was multiplied by logging, which accelerated water run-off and soil erosion. The history of logging in the region is impressive from a robber baron point of view, but not from an ecological perspective. In recent years, some logging companies have abandoned conservative forestry, and have shifted to asset liquidation — cut everything as soon as possible. This popular method of forest management is known as rape and run.
The destruction caused by grazing and logging can sometimes be reversed, but the destruction caused by mining is often permanent and irreversible. Manning takes us on a tour of Butte, a mining center upstream from Missoula. It is a toxic catastrophe. The open pit mine turned into a poison lake when mining ended, and the pumps were unplugged. The lake is rising, and will eventually overflow, and poison everything downstream. A treatment plant is planned. Scientists are trying to invent technology for purifying large volumes of poison water. If they succeed, the plant will run until it is disabled by rising energy costs and/or economic collapse.
Manning’s primary motivation for writing this book was the struggle to stop a proposed cyanide heap-leach gold mine on the Blackfoot River. Gold mining is insane because it causes incredible ecological damage to produce a metal that is primarily used for hoarding, decoration, and status display. Cyanide heap-leach mining is an especially insane mode of gold mining because of the toxic pollution it causes, and the ecologic devastation it leaves behind.
The basics are that a thick plastic sheet is laid on the ground. Then a mountain of crushed ore is dumped on the sheet. Then large quantities of toxic cyanide are poured on the heap, to absorb and carry away tiny pieces of gold to the bottom, where they are collected and processed. Heap leach mining enables corporations to make a profit by extracting one ounce of gold from 60 tons of rock. When the mining is over, the bars and bordellos disappear, the boomtown dies, the corporation moves on, and future generations are left with a permanent super-toxic nightmare. I've come to understand that there is at least as much dark karma in a gold earring as in 10,000 full length mink coats.
I read a lot of books. Many books, a year after reading them, have left no tracks on my memory. Other books are burned into my DNA, and I will never forget their power — One Round River is one of these. This book is a full-immersion baptism in highly concentrated madness. The power of greed and ignorance can make humans behave in a manner that is spectacularly crazy.
Happily, the forceful burning truth in this book contributed to a magic act. After the book was published, and people understood the foolishness, the mine project was killed. The mining industry has long been a controlling force in Montana politics. They almost always get what they want. In 1998 Montana became the only state to ban cyanide heap-leach gold mining. In 2008 the US Supreme Court shot down the last appeal by the mining industry. So, the land will be safe from this madness, for a while, hopefully. It’s enjoyable to find a rare story where the good guys win.
Manning, Richard, One Round River — The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997.