Opinion by Ronald Vore
Exploiting the Peaks
By Ronald E. Vore, PhD
Warren Peak is a point of prominence in the Bear Lodge Mountains. The area, affectionately known by locals as “the Peaks,” is a place of great beauty and boldness.
In winter, it is the snow-capped high country, visible from the lower basins for miles around. Winter snowpack from the area provides important water flows in a multitude of small tributaries to the Belle Fourche River, critical for the environment, local economies and also local recreation and ascetics.
In spring, the area is renowned for its fields of crocus, ornate and delicate flowers that appear shortly following snowmelt. They are tucked in a finite niche surrounded by tufts of fescue known only to the higher elevations of the Intermountain West. Both thrive on the shallow soils, as long as they are treated with respect and there is little abuse to the ecology.
Summer brings a blush of warm season grasses, holding on to the hillsides and holding the hillsides against the forces of erosion. The fields, earlier covered with crocus and prairie smoke, have turned to the gray and yellow of Wyethia and the various hues of green grasses. This expression of plant life has an important function – that of holding the rocks and soils from flowing downhill in summer storms. Without the natural cover intercepting and decelerating the storm events of summer, the escarpments of roads and drill pads are left to wash downward, contributing to the ecological devastation of the area.
Fall ushers in an entirely different palate. The hills of the Peaks turn prairie gold late in the year, responding to the changing conditions of the season. Lower, in the little stream channels and drainages, the birch and aspen transition from a green shimmer to the yellows and oranges that are so aesthetically valued. A few oaks shudder into a brown, contrasting against the brighter arrays and the greens of the scattered pines. This seasonal beauty is but a dress rehearsal for the boldness of the area.
This boldness is a trait, expressed by the prominence of the region and the commander on high, resplendent with all the seasonal attributes only the Peaks can exhibit from a distance. But enter the lands, and it quickly becomes evident that this boldness has been forever under attack. The attack has historically been at the hand of man and machine drilling, scraping, chiseling and gouging, against a backdrop of nature. The spoils of these campaigns are visible for any and all to see without much time or effort spent to bear witness to the suffering.
Shortly following the early discovery of gold, rare and coveted by many of the earth’s enemies, tens of thousands of mining shares traded for money to finance exploration and exploitation operations in the Bear Lodge. Rueter, Shaffer, Bach and other mining activities attempted to hit the lode. All failed in time, leaving debt to the investors and the unrecovered remains of the efforts to extract valuables from the earth.
For a couple generations, the area was largely left to the wildlife and livestock, tending to the business of living within the limits of the land, managing forage and forest while careful to avoid excess. But in the late ‘50s, a new excitement was founded: uranium. This material, also rare and coveted by some and driven by new technology, was sought after with fervor, to the extent that the investors stayed faithful with steady infusions of money. When that went bust, what was left was again debt to the investors and the remains of bulldozed gouges on thousands of acres.
On the heels of that calamity came the radar base, complete with extensive road construction, nuclear reactor and cantonment base. For less than a decade, what was once a natural setting turned into a flattened peak compromised with concrete, steel and a complication of buildings. When the public funding support cooled on the reactor, the entire operation vacated the area, leaving an inflated local infrastructure, failed businesses and the remains of all the activity that will take centuries to dissolve.
Again, for a couple more generations, the area was left to heal, to recover the scars and developments remaining from a disregard to the area. Some healing has occurred, but much of the collateral impact has taken decades to resolve. Local economies struggle with the sudden void left by a subsidized activity. When the stakes are pulled, whether funded by private investments or public funding, what is left is the local economy held responsible to pay for the languishing infrastructure with a tax base that was largely unchanged from before the invasion.
Today, history is attempting to repeat the previous experience. The evidence of exploitation is all over the Peaks, grinding and gouging roads, creating escarpments in the fragile environment, destroying the crocus fields and pristine pastures. This is being perpetrated under the guise of searching for the elusive rare and coveted flavor of the day – rare elements. It is in response to a technology that is most likely here today, gone tomorrow.
When tomorrow comes, the repeating common thread will be plain. Exploitation will cast its ugliness on the landscape, forever to remind those of us who remain of the plethora of actions brought to bear once again by the enemies of the earth. Throughout the past 120 years, these actions have repeated, but from one to the next escalating in scope and destruction. The escalations are in response to the money, machine power, technology and man’s blatant disregard to natural resources.
Ironically, we can see the evidence but maybe choose to ignore. Failed economies are remembered, but fade with reparation. However, holes in the ground remain, from generation to generation, reminders of the failures of the system to require remediation and rehabilitation. The gigantic hole at Lead can’t be missed, if we choose to look. So is the crumbling infrastructure that supported that exploitation. Are those atrocities being addressed by the industry responsible or will it take the fundamental tax base of the community to pay the bill, a bill that necessitates an ever-increasing leverage of tax against that remaining tax base?
Previous attractions of local exploitation have been somewhat recovered from by subsequent generations, saddled with a responsibility wrought on them by their predecessors. What generation will be expected to bear the weight of recovery from the current exploitation being proposed? And what will they be expected to pay the recovery bill with, when what is left is again the wildlife and livestock, moving from grass patch to grass patch, over an area once beautiful and bold but left to face the future exposed and vulnerable?