January 16, 2018 – Ranchers, farmers and commercial fishermen are not among the groups one would expect to be involved in environmental activism, or even involved in practices that help the environment, but that is the subject of this documentary film, narrated by newscaster icon Tom Brokaw.
This documentary film takes the viewer from Montana to Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico where the voices of these activists are heard and the results of their activism are seen. The film notes that relatively few people control the lion's share of private land in the U.S.
Montana rancher Dusty Crary is seen riding his horse in front of a wall of east-facing mountains called the Rocky Mountain Front, part of a 10 million acre portion of the Rocky Mountains said to be the largest unaltered landscape in the 48 contiguous states. Crary is an outfitter as well as a fourth generation rancher living near Choteau, Montana. Crary's family has been working this ranch since 1922.
An oil exploration boom in the Rockies and other land development expansions into the Rocky Mountain Front got Crary and others in Montana worried that they would lose the very nature of the places and views they had always enjoyed in the past, the unspoiled mountain scenery, the wildlife, the streams and riparian habitat. They formed the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front.
The coalition worked with private groups like the Nature Conservancy, using environmental easements on their own land to preserve wildlife as well as their own existing land uses. Then they worked with the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Congressmen to preserve the federal land along the Rocky Mountain Front as well as the private land.
The Coalition helped to pass a law called the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which was introduced in 2011. After a lot of lobbying, the act was finally passed late in 2014. The act expands the Bob Marshall wilderness area by 67,000 but for the vast majority of the land in the bill, 208,000 acres, ranching, firewood harvesting and some motorized travel is still allowed.
Crary and his fellow coalition members are clearly proud of what they have accomplished, viewing it as a fair and balanced compromise between competing interests, while preserving the land the way it is for the future. But trouble is on the horizon.
One scene in the film shows Crary, riding horseback, leading a string of pack animals along the flank of a mountain in the Rocky Mountain Front. Most of the trees in this area are dead, killed by pine beetles whose numbers have greatly increased in the high country due to climate change. Harsh winters used to hold down beetle populations, but the winters are milder now. No mention is made of climate change in the movie, however. Acting locally, is clearly not enough to save this global landscape.
Next, the film goes to Kansas for a segment on no-till farming. Farmers have plowed fields for thousands of years, but that is rapidly changing, as a new kind of farming is becoming popular. Farmers using this new method (first proposed by Edward H. Faulkner in the 1940s) don't plow fields. They use special machines to plant crops which minimally disturb the topsoil and vegetation. After harvesting the crops, they don't clear the leftover plants, they leave them in place to decompose and enrich the soil.
The film makes a good case for no-till farming, showing how it enriches the soil, cuts evaporation losses, cuts soil erosion, reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers and saves money on farming machinery. The farmers who practice no-till swear by it and are convinced they are enriching and saving the soil on their farms.
Next, the film moves to the Gulf of Mexico where there is a war going on between commercial fishermen and private fishermen over prized fish like the Red Snapper. The film gives a history lesson in fish management. There was a crash of the gulf Red Snapper population in the late 1980s. Before that, it was a “free for all.” There were no limits on fishing, but that changed in 1990, when the federal government stepped in a set limits on the fishing season.
According to the film, just setting limits on the season was a disaster. It led to commercial fishermen taking risks with weather conditions they normally would not take because of the limited number of days they were allowed to fish. It also did not help fish populations to recover because fishermen, though fishing fewer days, were taking just as many fish as before.
Commercial fishermen and the government worked out a new method for allocating the resource, based on the number of fish taken. This allowed commercial fishermen to fish at any time they wanted to, making it safer for them. After this new Individual Fishing Quota (IRQ) program was instituted, fish stocks began to recover.
A decision to allow more private fishing at the expense of commercial fishermen (including charter fishing operators) by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in the film showed a big disagreement between the commercial fishermen and the private fishermen. The commercial fishermen in the film claimed that the decision would hurt fish stocks and that it was being unduly influenced by wealthy private boat owners. The non-commercial fishermen said they were being unduly restricted in their access to Gulf Coast fisheries.
It seems too early to tell who is right in this fight, but early indications are the Trump Administration is going to allow more non-commercial fishing in the gulf. Last year, the red snapper season in the Gulf was extended by 39 weekend days for private recreational anglers. This decision, announced by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, reportedly ignored some input from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and also ignored data on fish stocks.
While this movie does have encouraging news about people fighting to preserve wilderness, soil and fisheries at the local level, there are also troubling signs of vast political and global climate changes afoot that may end up undoing most of what they have accomplished.
Conservative activists who voted for Donald Trump may have been working against their own efforts. The anti-science forces in the federal government threaten to reduce fish stocks and kill the evergreen forests in the Rocky Mountains. The soil in Kansas, located close to heart of dust bowl crisis of the 1930s could blow away again.
The old environmental saying of “Think globally, act locally” maybe needs to be reversed these days. Local efforts by activists don't seem to be making enough of an impact on the world at large. This film rates a C+.
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