Earlier this year, while researching for my upcoming book on Libby history, I ran across an opinion-editorial that has been reprinted in full at the end of this column. Cut out by someone years ago and included in a box of miscellaneous papers awaiting cataloging at the Heritage Museum, the headline made me pause and read about what challenges were confronting Libby in 1980.
Finishing the article, I was astounded and humbled by the reality that our community continues to be divided by the same issues causing people to pick sides a generation ago. Unfortunately, though the arguments continue, Libby has spiraled into a “Dark Age” where little of a once lively town remains.
My parents and siblings moved to Libby from eastern Montana in 1965 because of the Libby Dam Project. But I am technically not a “Dam Kid.” I was born in Libby the following year, which makes me a native-born son where many of my school chums in the 1970s were only here as long as their dads had jobs building Libby Dam.
Being a Libby native, or “Libby Lifer” as my students say, does not present any more validity to my opinions or arguments than a recent newcomer to the area. However, I do remember a Libby different than I see today.
I have been drawn to countless community meetings since returning to Libby. Meetings trying to address one community calamity or another: Champion International or Stimson Lumber shutting down, wildfire threats, school funding issues, United States Forest Service management policies, City of Libby policies, or maybe major school board decisions.
I have come to realize that all these discussions have one commonality – Libby’s economic implosion caused by the loss of our natural resource-based culture and the dysfunction that followed.
My mind has been wrapped around the essential question of how to right the listing ship we all call home. The subject comes up often in my classes. Why do the fathers of so many students have to work in the Bakken oil fields or commute to Alaska to find meaningful work? Why do mill levies fail when voters either can’t or won’t support higher taxes for school budgets? Why won’t the drive-in movie theater ever reopen? Why has Libby High School gone from one of the highest enrollments in Class A when I was hired to teach and coach in 1993 to having one of the smallest enrollments and soon being relegated to Class B just 20 years later?
You can’t fault the students for wondering and asking. But in this case, the questions deserving answers oftentimes are met by their teacher pondering the same things with no easy answers to give them.
In 1999 I was reading to my senior government students part of a daily newspaper column written by a University of Montana economics professor trumpeting the benefits of the “economic transition” going on in Montana’s timber communities. I read from this November 12, 1999 Missoulian article:
“How did the western Montana economy respond to this loss of two-thirds of the federal timber supply? As we all know, it boomed. Even Lincoln County in the northwest corner of the state, the most timber dependent of our counties, saw jobs and population grow by about 7 percent during the 1990’s despite the loss of not only two-thirds of the federal log flow but also the shutdown of a major mine.”
We wondered how this could be true with the loss of 350 jobs from the closure of Champion International’s mills, the ASARCO mine in Troy closing eliminating another 300 jobs from the local economy, plus the many loggers and businesses catering to them.
One boy asked if we could call and ask how the writer got his information. After several minutes of searching phone numbers online, we dialed his office number and, surprisingly, he answered.
I introduced myself, telling him our class was interested in his article, especially his rosy economic picture of Lincoln County. He explained that he found his data on some census website and that “numbers don’t lie.” I said because we didn’t have access to his information at the moment, we would go with his data. I then suggested that perhaps Lincoln County had seen some new jobs since the Champion International and ASARCO mine closures, but certainly they were not as high paying as the skilled milling and mining jobs lost in the last nine years.
I will never forget his response, and maybe it is why I have developed a keen skepticism of government bureaucrats or ivory-towered officials basing opinions on selected data gleaned from who-knows-where. He replied that “since the majority of the lost workers were not college graduates, they should never have been making $13 an hour” or whatever figure I gave him as the average wage lost when the mills and mines closed.
So much for skilled workers possessing knowledge acquired from decades of being dedicated employees being worth a living wage. My students that day probably learned more about intellectual arrogance and pompous attitudes than my prepared instruction on checks and balances or some other topic in their text.
I am convinced that a new narrative is needed for my hometown. The above experience plus countless conversations and meetings with people and groups pushing for public land preservation have led me to realize the timber wars are over, and Libby and rural Montana lost.
Conservation groups with mission statements reflecting a need for them and their organizations to “save us from ourselves” and retard natural resource development on our public lands have dominated the discourse and created dysfunction in the Forest Service.
Credible solutions and new ideas attempting to address Libby’s DOA economy have been about as rare as the sun in winter. Self-proclaimed experts and anonymous bloggers still serve up their righteous opinions and senseless solutions. But, here we are, 30 years later and still pointing fingers and twisting daggers.
This “Libby Lifer” wants to once again live in a town that allows current citizens and the next generation to earn their way and provide for themselves rather than relying on government earmarks and slick-tongued rhetoric from politicians saying what they think we need to hear and then leaving and doing nothing.
Starting today and for each of the next four Fridays, I will analyze Libby’s contemporary economy and propose several solutions that will hopefully at least raise a new awareness of our shared community. Next week, I will write on the present economic situation in Libby. Thank you for reading.
A Big Challenge
From all appearances, the Libby Reregulating Dam is no longer an issue for area residents.
That dam was dealt all but a death blow this week as Congressman Pat Williams introduced an amendment into a House authorization bill that deleted the Libby Reregulating Dam. That amendment passed, and the dam is no longer a topic of discussion in the House of Representatives.
And, according to statements issued by Sen. John Melcher several weeks ago, the dam would have even less of a chance of being approved by the U.S. Senate if it is deleted in the House.
So, where do area residents go from here?
Environmentalists don’t have a rereg dam to kick around anymore, and pro-development groups don’t have any reason to kick anti-rereg environmentalists anymore.
Maybe this would be a good time for those who have been opposing each other for so long to sit down and put this entire rereg situation – and, along with it, the development-anti-development argument – into some kind of perspective that could benefit this area rather than tear it apart.
Pat Williams kind of summed it up in the not-so-distant past when he basically said it didn’t matter to him that much what the Libby area people thought of him. His votes come from the Missoula area and the rest of western Montana.
He said he realized that the majority of people in the Libby area were probably in favor of the construction of the rereg dam, but the majority of people in western Montana were against it. That’s where the votes are – that’s political reality, like it or not.
And, Williams helped to put the rereg into perspective a little more recently when he said it took up a little more than one-half page of a 187-page authorization bill. That’s one-three hundred seventy-fourth of the bill.
Even though the proposed rereg dam – and other development projects – have torn at the fiber of this community for quite some time. The polarization that has come about is neither constructive nor healthy for this community.
Now that the rereg issue is dead – at least for the time being – it would do everyone who has been arguing for or against that project some good to step back and take a look.
It’s time to look for ways in which the preservation of this area’s resources and the development of this area’s resources can peacefully coexist during the decade of the 1980s.
Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, there is going to be development in Lincoln County in the future. There are going to be demands made of the natural resources of this area that have not even been conceived yet.
The world needs minerals, energy, lumber, water – and the list goes on. Lincoln County is rich in all those resources.
Protecting those resources is a noble ideal. But so is providing people with what they need to survive in the world’s economy.
Somewhere there is a balance between protecting a river and providing electricity for heating a home. Somewhere there is a balance between protecting a forest and providing shelter for a family. Somewhere there is a balance between developing the natural resources of an area and at the same time providing people with the opportunity to see how beautiful the earth is when it is left alone.
Finding those balances should be the goal of NEED, The Cabinet Resources Group, Save the Kootenai, The Libby Rod and Gun Club, GREED, and every other group that has formed around environmental issues during the past decade.
Finding those balances should also be the goal of those individuals who have gallantly taken up their causes – but have recently begun to yell so loud that they can no longer hear, or see the other side of the argument.
It’s a big challenge for the 1980s.
And the times demand that the challenge be met.
(This is the first of a five-part series of columns by Jeff Gruber, analyzing the economic challenges in Libby.)