On this human-powered journey across arid and desolate plains of central Montana, we have been hosted by a multitude of people. Each person has had a unique story to tell and a dedication they have shared with us, ranging from the environment and global warming to community service and development.
In Roundup, Pat Perella and the Knights of Columbus cooked us a proper meal, including burgers, brats, hotdogs, pasta salad, and plenty of other goodies. They even sent us home with a stack of pancakes for next morning’s breakfast. Over our meal, they shared with us their contributions to the community. This included their involvement in the disaster relief from the Musselshell flood that occurred in 2011. During the flood, a Cycle the Rockies group was staying in Roundup, so Pat and his brothers gave them shelter, fed them and put them to work sandbagging. Ever since the Cycle the Rockies group has stopped by the church for a nice hot meal on their way through Roundup each year.
In Rygate, we stayed with Jean Wallace, an activist and child of the sixties revolution. She cooked us enchiladas while we took our first section exam. She even let us stinky bikers stay in her extra beds. This was a much needed change from our usual tents and thin sleeping pads. Over dinner, Jean shared with us her involvement with renewable energy in Montana and gave us details about her extremely efficient passive solar home. She even joined us for our class discussion the following morning.
Of these people and the many others that have hosted us so far, I find that a man named Steve Charter has been the most inspirational. Steve is a 3rd generation Montana rancher who makes his living on his ranch between Billings and Roundup. But Steve is not your average rancher. His involvement in organizing the community and concern for addressing climate change are qualities that set him apart from many other ranchers.
The farmers and ranchers that live around Steve have been in a multi-decade fight to keep the lands they use viable for their various forms of agriculture. Steve and his family have been instrumental in uniting these ranchers through an organization now known as the Northern Plains Resource Council. Steve is the current chairman of the council and has been an integral force in the council’s mission to fight the Signal Peak coal mine in the nearby Bull Mountains. The mine operates under the land Steve and others use to graze cattle. As a result of the mining process, the land above suffers from subsidence and surface cracks. This subsidence lowers the surface by about seven feet and together with the surface cracks; it could possibly drain the spring fed aquifer above the mine. Steve and other ranchers rely on this aquifer to water their cattle, as this is a very arid climate and is the only water source for miles and miles. If this aquifer were to be drained it would eliminate the possibility of ranching in these mountains. Because of these risks, Steve and the Northern Plains Resource Council have fought to hold the mine responsible for the totality of their environmental impact and require them to commission an updated EIA for any additional permits they wish to attain.
Steve’s concern for the environment does not stop here. As we sit in the living room of Steve’s underground home, we notice his coffee table is littered with books. All of these books have something in common. They are related to a relatively new technique known as carbon farming. This practice refers to holistic management, high intensity rotational grazing and careful monitoring of the carbon content of soil. Through high intensity rotational grazing cattle and other livestock mimic the national grazing patterns of wild animals that once use to roam the worlds grass lands. This method is thought to promote the health of the grass by stressing it to grow then giving it time off from grazing. This deepens the roots of the grass and promotes the growth of microbes that extend the reach of the roots and protect them from harmful bacteria.
All of these processes have benefits to the rancher in that they allow more cattle to graze and reduce the need for purchasing additional feed. However, there are also benefits to the atmosphere. Many scientists believe that the modern agricultural practices of overgrazing and over tilling have led to the topsoil releasing much of the carbon it had traditionally stored. Some estimates say as much as half of the carbon released since the industrial revolution have come from the soil.
Now there is hope! Many people, including Steve and the scientists he learns from, believe that they can sequester a large amount of the excess carbon in the atmosphere. If this is the case, we may be looking at our first realistic option at slowing, or even stopping, global warming.
Steve has dedicated the rest of his life to this technique. He hopes to use his land to understand and develop the technique known as carbon farming. He also plans to educate as many people as he can about the importance of responsible ranching and the potential benefits of high intensity rotational grazing.
Each of our hosts has an important passion and dedication, and has expressed extreme hospitality. However, the efforts of Steve Charter have left the most lasting effect on me. His efforts may not result in immediate advancements and there are many skeptics of his practice, but Steve is taking action. He is near the forefront of this movement, and he is doing almost everything in his power to make a change for the benefit of the environment, on both a local and global scale.