one of them offer a better deal? the council asked. Maybe Lawrence should shop around. The council dithered. Time passed. The second problem was getting the energy to market. This dilemma is not unique to Montana: the places where the wind blows hardest are often far away from prospective customers. And getting from here to there, with a national power grid that might charitably be described as ramshackle and balkanized, means building new power lines, which can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Lawrence’s big gorilla was in a position to finance such a project; the tribe’s other potential partners weren’t. Meanwhile, two things happened. One of the likeliest purchasers of wind power from Montana had been California, with its ambitious mandate to obtain one-third of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. But then, in 2011, California changed its rules, stipulating that three-quarters of this energy had to come from in-state sources. Meanwhile, Rim Rock and the nearby Glacier I and II came online, both off the rez and unencumbered by tribal politics. Together, these wind farms could generate almost 400 megawatts, more than the entire capacity of a new 214-mile-long transmission line that would carry electricity out of state. The Blackfeet wind initiative withered on the vine, and Jeri Lawrence took a new job with the tribal historic preservation office. Like the oil leases that Dan Lindseth and Harold Yeager had promoted, the Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) depended on the goodwill of private landowners whose property would be affected by a power line snaking across their fields. But not all of these farmers and ranchers were thrilled at the prospect. Many resented the idea that a foreign company, the Canadian energy giant Enbridge (aided by federal stimulus dollars, just to add insult to injury), should be granted the power of eminent domain in the United States. MATL was mired for two years in legislative and courtroom battles. Local environmentalists were of two minds about power lines in Big Sky country. Some saw climate change as an existential issue; the need for renewables trumped other concerns. Others were joined on the barricades by the strangest of bedfellows. Perhaps the most determined holdout against Enbridge was Larry Salois, a Cree and a vocal supporter of wind energy, who nonetheless fought to keep the power line away from the ancient tepee rings on his property with the help of an aggressively libertarian property rights lawyer. But eventually the juice from Rim Rock and Glacier I and II began to flow. And in the most painful of ironies, most of it was destined not for arid San Diego or Phoenix. Instead it would go across the border to Alberta. And why does Alberta need all this extra energy? Largely to feed the economic monster created by the province’s tar sands boom.
“When people complain about fossil fuels, I say the solution is for all these farmers to grow wind turbines,” Gene joked. Then he paused. “But I don’t want them up and down along the Front. Out by the interstate, well, I guess I can live with that.” The story echoed things that others had said. Look at this, Dan Lindseth had appealed to me, waving a hand at the distant mountains. Do you think we want to change it? Landscape alteration, said Dusty Crary; that was the thing he feared most. In the end, what defined the essence of the Front to everyone here was what it looked like, the extraordinary beauty of the place. You can pass laws in Congress to protect roadless areas and sensitive habitat. You can use the Clean Water Act to address the contamination of water by fracking wells. But how do you protect something as intangible and subjective as beauty—even from something as desirable as a wind turbine? I’d first seen the new Glacier wind farms a couple of summers ago, and Linda was right: there was a regal beauty to all those turbines striding across the flat golden miles of wheat. I liked the idea of power lines flanking the interstate, carrying clean energy to distant cities. And the view of the Front was intact. Glacier was at least 40 miles away, and the mountains were barely visible on the horizon. But now another new wind farm, which would have some of the tallest turbines in the nation, was under construction in the bleak little town of Fairfield, which bills itself as the Malting Barley Capital of the World. This one was a bit closer, maybe 30 miles off the face of the Front. It made me wonder, how close was too close? Twenty miles? Ten? Five? And though I found no moral equivalence between a wind turbine and a fracking rig, how many oil wells would it take to wreck the view? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred? I posed these questions to everyone I met, and no one quite knew where to draw the line. On my last morning in Montana, the temperature had bottomed out at 36 below, and warmer air was moving in. A leaden snow sky was beginning to close in on the sawtooth silhouette of the Front as I struck out along a twisting dirt road into the foothills, orienting myself by the dark patches of gravel that showed through the ice. The snow began to fall, lightly at first and then in a denser curtain. It gradually erased the fence lines, then the few scattered Black Angus huddled on the farther hillsides, until all that was left was a blurred suggestion of the mountains, pale gray on white. The landscape was silent, primordial, glorious, and a little frightening. No power lines, no turbines, no oil wells, a land that Blackfeet and grizzlies had shared and seen this way for millennia, and I felt, all things considered, that because of the passion of environmentalists and the challenges of geology there was a decent chance it would stay that way. Gene Sentz and Dusty Crary would be happy; Dan Lindseth and Harold Yeager would be frustrated. If anyone had conflicted emotions, as the oil companies came and went and the wind farms kept their distance, it would probably be the Blackfeet, who would be left, as they have been for a century and half, to weigh the meaning of their mountains and berries and earth medicines against the value of a $20 bill.
You can pass laws in Congress to protect roadless areas and sensitive habitat. But how do you protect something as intangible and subjective as beauty?
n Choteau, Linda Sentz had told me a story about her
husband. “Gene was up on Ear Mountain one time, and he spent the night there,” she said. “You could look out and see all these flashing red lights from the [Glacier] wind farm. I suppose there is a certain beauty, but…” 5 0 onearth
SPRING 2 0 1 4
Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways