Saturday, March 13, 2010

Disappearance

The boy was restless. They had been driving for what seemed like an eternity, and before that, they had spent the day in two separate airports. When they landed in Billings, the boy had been relieved to finally reach Montana, but he hadn’t realized how far from their final destination they still were.

His father’s mood had grown more somber as each hour had passed. He would occasionally slow the rental car and look intently out the window, as if he were searching for something.

The boy looked out the window as well, but all he had seen in the past 85 miles was a sea of sagebrush and an occasional sign reminding travelers that this was federal land and that offroad travel was not permitted.

After what seemed like an eternity, they reached Malta. The weary travelers exited the car and stretched their legs in the parking lot of what appeared to be a tourist attraction with tipis circling around them.

  
The father walked into the largest of the structures while the boy unloaded their luggage from the back of the car. He tried to look past the tipis and into the town beyond, but darkness had fallen, and all he could see were streetlights and quiet sidewalks.

His father returned with a key, and together they carried their bags into the tipi to their left, which a dangling brass number nailed to the side of the door identified as number 7.

The boy rolled his eyes and asked his father if they really had to stay in such a hokey tourist trap. A shadow of sadness crossed his father’s eyes as he turned to his son.

“It’s the only place in town,” he replied.

The next morning, the man at the front desk in the largest tipi directed them to a tour guide who was loading a case of bottled water in the back of an SUV. They were joined by a couple from Connecticut who were exclaiming about the wide open spaces as they drove north out of town. The tour guide was quick to explain that this entire area had been rescued by the federal government when the President used the Antiquities Act to designate it a National Monument.

“Together with the grassland reserve in Canada, this area encompasses the world’s largest wildlife refuge,” the guide explained. “Bison were released here in 2019, and since then, their population has grown to nearly the level it was prior to the settlement of the West.”

As if on cue, the group spotted a bull rubbing his head vigorously on the remnants of a home long since vacated.

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They continued their journey northeast, and the boy was disappointed to see the same sea of sagebrush they had seen the day before. He began to question why his father thought it was so important that he visit this area. And he began to wonder why his father had such good memories of growing up here.

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After consulting the coordinates in his GPS unit, the tour guide stopped the vehicle and told the group that they would be walking the rest of the way to the ranch since federal law prohibits the use of motor vehicles beyond this point.

Thirty minutes later, the guide pointed to a dilapidated house and a hip roof barn. He told the group that the ranch was once the home of five generations of the same family who eked out a living raising cattle. They decided the life was too difficult in 2011, however, and they sold the place to the government. Since that time, the guide explained, the ranch had been turned back to nature, and under federal management, it was preserved and managed for the benefit of the wildlife who resumed their rightful place on the land.

At that point, the boy’s father looked piercingly at the guide, and to the boy’s surprise, he began to speak for the first time that day.

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The boy listened intently as his father told the guide that when he was a boy, his father had taught him about conservation by example, not by government guidelines. He related how his dad had guided the swather around a patch of alfalfa because he knew there was a nest of pheasants there. He remembered walking past the haystack on his way to the school bus stop and seeing the deer bedded down between the big rolls of hay that sustained them during the winter. He talked about the venison they ate for dinner that night as his dad explained that if they provided for the wildlife, the wildlife would provide for them.

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The boy’s father went on to explain how they had changed farming methods through the years, relying less and less on tillage and chemicals as technology progressed and allowed them to keep the land healthy. He told them about the workshops his father attended to improve the genetics of his cattle herd and make the cows more efficient. He spoke of how noxious weeds were eradicated using biological control methods along with chemical control until they were no longer a problem.

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He spoke of how his grandmother had sold eggs and milk to buy enough paint to finally cover the whole house that was falling down before them. The boy listened closely as his father explained what really happened when the government bought out his dad’s place. His family, he explained, had been leasing a portion of their grazing land from the government for generations. When nearby land was declared a National Monument, the government had offered a large sum to buy out his dad’s ranch. His dad, committed to ensuring the survival of the local school and community, had flatly refused.

Two years later, the family’s grazing rights on the public land were revoked.


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In the years that followed, the boy’s father explained, the family sold half their cattle, and his mother went to work in town, driving 40 miles each way to earn enough money to put groceries on the table. But the same year the grazing rights were revoked, an animal rights organization successfully lobbied Congress to pass new regulations regarding the beef industry, and feedlots all over the United States were shut down. With no one to buy their calves, the family had little choice. The place was sold to the government, and the family moved to town.

The group fell silent as the boy’s father looked at his son.




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“This is the land I wanted to pass along to you,” he said. “For 130 years, our family called this land home. We belonged to this land just as much as the eagles or the deer or the sage grouse. But somewhere along the way, people became a forgotten part of the ecosystem. Government decided it could conserve this land better than we could. Our family disappeared from this land. Our community was eradicated. Our state became a retreat for the wealthy. Our culture was lost.

“But I wanted you to see, son, what you could have called home.”

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