I. Reclamation: the action of calling or bringing back from wrongdoing
High in the north central mountains of Idaho, up the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, and farther on, where Jordan Creek is born, stands Mount Estes. It is named for the man who was tenacious enough to spend the 25 days it took to haul prospecting supplies in on sleds. The year was 1870, and the trek was 25 miles over intensely rugged terrain, which climbs more than a 1,000 feet in elevation in a short distance. Estes stands with her sisters, Sunbeam and Greylock, keeping watch over this diverse landscape, and in their grandeur, the mountains testify to millions of years of orogeny—the shifting and melting and stacking of rock and mineral.
The McFadden Mine, abandoned now and marked by crumbling buildings and half-covered mine shafts, sits precariously near the top of Mount Estes. The road is unwelcoming at the best of times and impassable much of the year. Late one summer, I went to Estes to try to find the footprints of my great, great Uncle Frank, who had mined there alongside countless others who were willing to attach themselves to a granite mountain and pry what they might out of its side. The work was hard, but I don’t suppose there are many more beautiful places to live your dream.
I was standing in the doorway of an abandoned miner’s cabin, helping my nephew, Wyatt, sort through his treasures of old bottles and rusted cans. My own two children were looking over the meadow that stretched hundreds of feet below, and as my brother pointed out various landforms to them, he turned to me and said,
“You know, if Wyatt ever works a day in a mine, he will be the sixth generation of our family that did.”
On a certain level, that piece of information was familiar to me. We had spent the earlier part of the day in the small ghost town of Custer. Now only a town-size museum, it was once a thriving mining settlement, and our relatives had helped build it. The old post office, which serves as a scrapbook of late 19th-century memorabilia, displays portraits of three of our great grandmothers, a great grandfather and various great aunts and uncles, and the physical remnants of a past we had heard about since we were children. It was a romantic retelling, involving great-grandmothers who skied to school and took care of entire households when they were in their early teens. They nearly died in avalanches, survived hardships unknown and married mountain men from whom our bloodlines were formed. I knew this, but I had never truly realized that we came from people who often made their livings in relationship with the earth and that their quests most often took them to places like Mount Estes, hard and unrelenting.
For me, my family’s mining background is a complicated legacy. I’ve lived in or near a city for over 30 years, so most of the people I know are unfamiliar with mining as a way of life. Some see it only as the rape and pillage of Earth while others find it an unsavory aspect of our history that can be dealt with by joining conservation leagues or sending annual checks to environmental agencies, and I admit to having been in both of these groups at different times in my life. These are times of ecological awareness. We read about chemicals in streams, the erosion and scarring of pristine hillsides, the ugly aftermath of neglect when the lode is worked out and the company picks up and moves on. While performing fieldwork for an anthropology degree, I saw areas so polluted that 12 inches of topsoil had to be removed from the entire community in order to lower lead levels enough for children to play outside again. I have been to Butte, Mont., and seen the devastating effects of open-pit mining, and I have climbed over the tall, unsightly dredge piles just 20 miles outside of the city where I grew up. I am probably more aware than most people of the drastic and often harmful effects of an occupation that tears away at the earth with whatever tool will work best, from dynamite to water pressure,
pickax to multi-ton dredge, and so I am cautious about sharing this aspect of my heritage.
Even miners are not immune to ideological shifts and changes, however, and after a century of poor mining practices, mining operations now often focus on ‘‘reclamation.” The term refers to work done to meet the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, legislation that dictates the procedures which must be followed to reclaim mined lands and to prevent or minimize the adverse environmental effects of mining. The act ensures that land used for mining must be returned to a condition capable of supporting the pre-mining land use or a higher or better use, and it allows for some lands to be declared unsuitable for mining.
My brother, a fifth generation miner, is involved with the reclamation of what was one of the largest modern gold mines in Idaho. Located in central Idaho, at the foot of Mount Estes, the Grouse Creek unit of the Hecla Mining Company is now running a seven-year reclamation project, and men who, like my brother, had participated in the underground mining are now monitoring water and moving earth to make the hillside on Sunbeam Mountain look as if its face had not been torn off and scraped out.
I was there to see the parts of the landscape that seem to have existed in their current state for a millennium. Sheer rock faces covered with scrubby sagebrush looked undisturbed but had, just a few years earlier, hosted giant portals that allowed men to drive huge machines deep into the stomach of the mountain.
Seeing a place reclaimed into the earth as if it had never really existed is an oddly humbling experience; though the natural environment had been disturbed, chemicals used and the habitat destroyed by machinery, some things heal in ways that elude our understanding. Man and his endeavors are transitory, and mining is no exception. Entire communities of thousands can be reduced to a few crumbling logs and a grown-over opening into a hillside.
One of the most drastic examples I’ve seen of this in Idaho is the mining camp of Roosevelt. Located at Thunder Mountain in Valley County, it is hours away from the closest town; a rutted and narrow road takes you across a sheer shale face and over Monumental Summit, a l0,000-foot elevation crossing. It is difficult to imagine the
ordeal of horse and ore wagon, and the time and courage it must have taken to make that trip.
Even today, you can’t drive all the way to Roosevelt, but the hike from where the road ends is a short two miles. As you climb the last portion of the trail, you can see a mountain lake, pristine and calm. It is a startling color of blue contrasted against the backdrop of pine trees and unforgiving black shale. The lake is what is left of Roosevelt. A natural dam broke in 1908, and the mining town was buried under 20 feet of water. No miners died in the flood, but fortunes were lost. You can still look into the bottom of the lake and vaguely make out the grid-like pattern where streets and cabins used to be. A lot of the logs have floated to the top and form a kind of floating dock at the water’s edge. Roosevelt seems the ultimate example of nature reclaiming its property, a reminder that man does not always control his destiny.
From the time I was old enough to drive, I have traveled with a small shovel, a gold pan and a journal to the mining towns scattered across Idaho, some still thriving, but most just shadows of their heyday. I have, over the years, watched the old miner’s hall at Stibnite crumble and fall, pried bricks illegally out of foundations at the Silver King and dug in the outhouse pits of sites from north Idaho to the most southwestern corner of the state. I’ve written weak and dramatic stories as well as poems about these places, using phrases like “the abandoned shoe of the fevered child,” and I swear I’ve felt the spirits of those who came and did not survive the ordeal.
Our earthly existence is only momentary. Seeing beargrass grow up through hard pine timbers at Bay Horse or picnicking in the small aspen grove that stands where the opium den was at Custer reminds us that lakes are unstoppable and that blowing sand will cover up what is left of boom towns like Pearl, Silver City and De Lamar, leaving only traces for those of us who still seek out some connection to all that came before.
II. Reclamation: a claim for something
In 1964, Idaho Sen. Frank Church carried The Wilderness Act on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The act was intended to preserve
wild lands from development, road construction and motorized traffic. Though Idaho has six wilderness areas, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is the most notable; its 2.3 million acres make it the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48 states. Time spent in this or any other designated wilderness allows you to sense what it might be like to see a landscape undisturbed and natural. The “wilderness” designation begs the question, however: Can something really become wild and undisturbed after it has once been tamed and disturbed? The term “wilderness” sets up a false construct when it is applied to areas that are not genuinely untouched. It soothes us to think that we can “fix” or somehow reverse former trespasses against the land—returning it to its wild or primitive state.
The Roosevelt mining camp is located just inside the southeastern boundary of the Frank Church-River ofNo Return Wilderness. Now that it is a lake, can we say it is a wilderness? Can we dismiss the rusting mining equipment and an overgrown cemetery on the surrounding hillside? The idea that man-made legislation can return anything to a wild state is presumptuous at best.
Another problem with the idea of reclaiming land to the wilderness is our motivations for doing so. I will be the first to admit that I want wilderness areas so that I can go to them, dragging along my personal effects, and though I am careful to do as the Forest Service pamphlet suggests and “Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” the fact remains that I have been there to take pictures and leave footprints on grasses and shrubs. I might scatter the rocks from my fire ring before I leave, but something was burned, something altered. I may not drive all-terrain vehicles or hack away at hillsides with mining tools, but still, I use the land for my own purposes, however non-invasive I might think them. “Wild” implies that which is untouched and unexploited. Human engagement with “wilderness” seems to somehow negate the term.
In his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronin reminds us that wilderness, “far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, is quite profoundly a human creation. … It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an endangered but still transcendent nature can be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is a product of that civilization.”
So, though I am a proponent of wilderness bills and designations, I recognize that, in some ways, they are a panacea to ease the collective guilt of having been involved, however vicariously, in the exploitation of the land. Part of my guilt stems from the fact that multiple generations of my family were involved in occupations that caused so much damage, but I also know that I, like so many, remained unaware until it was nearly too late. It feels safe somehow to think that we can alleviate our complicity by making arbitrary designations.
Deep within Idaho’s millions of acres of wilderness areas, there are core sections of unaltered ground, but many areas are dotted with overgrown airstrips and roads, boat ramps and decaying cabins, which serve as reminders that, although one might choose a semantic designation, ultimately all things are in a constant state of change. The forests and mountainous areas of the country are no exception. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is an example of how government might attempt to preserve the land, and for those of us who treasure the idea of protected, wild places, these designations are reassuring, but the truth is that we have no idea what may ultimately happen to this land or to the wilderness act that currently protects it.
III. Reclaim: to recall or bring back to a proper state
I live on a small fruit farm in the southeast corner of Idaho. The highway leading to this area from the surrounding cities is lined with fields growing everything from sugar beets and winter wheat to onions and silage corn. The area has a rich agricultural history, and much of the local economy is made up of the auxiliary services farmers need: tractor dealers, seed growers, irrigation companies, migrant laborers and chemical supply houses.
For 17 years, I have driven through this valley, marveling at the seasonal transitions and enjoying the harvest as it comes, but more and more, the fields are being replaced with housing developments. Every day, new signs are posted proclaiming deals such as “40 acres— prime development property.” According to the latest census figures, Canyon County experienced rapid growth between 1990 and 2000, with population numbers jumping from 90,076 to 131,441. In 10
years, more than 41,000 people moved to this area, most of them settling on the outskirts of the county’s two main towns. Even more startling is the fact that in the eight years since the census was last taken, the county’s population growth rate has continued to increase—by a staggering 51.9%. The homes being built for these new residents are rapidly eating up prime agricultural land. The planning for these developments seems random. Rather than building a new subdivision next to the previous one, new communities pop up in the middle of what was once a huge wheat or sugar beet field.
Though the roads where I live are still lined with dense orchards, just five miles from my home are developments with names as unlikely as Moonstruck and Bay Meadows. The houses are all similar to each other, the builders offering just a few floor plans from which to choose. There are obvious concerns about this type ofgrowth, and too few people seem to be asking the relevant questions: Where will the food be grown? How quickly will the aquifer be depleted? When will a rural lifestyle be unavailable to those who would choose it?
The concern over the urban sprawl that is taking place in states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming reflects a universal fear that there may no longer be a “last frontier.” As we watch the open spaces of the country fold in on top of themselves, there is a sense of urgency to alter or, in some way, slow the rapid growth. This anxiety is especially overwhelming for those of us living in the open spaces. Real estate signs and the bare lumber skeletons of new homes rise out of the fields, assaulting us on each drive into town. When I lived in the city, I was concerned about sprawl in an abstract “oh, we really need to get a handle on this thing” sort of way, but having lived these past years in an area being rapidly encroached upon, I have entered into a camaraderie with people across the nation who have watched helplessly as wheat fields turned into oil fields, shorelines became high-rise hotels and farmland gave way to huge technology complexes.
In our country, Native Americans were the first to experience this sense of loss and dislocation, and yet we whine and moan as if we are the only civilization to watch as its spaces are inhabited and changed. American indignation about the rapid relocation of people from more congested areas to the open spaces of less populated states is arrogant and selfish; this country was founded on the principle of
land-grabbing, and it seems that very little has changed in the more than 300 years we’ve been fine-tuning that skill. A sense of fair play evades even those of us most adamant about stopping the growth. When I asked a man who has lived in my area for 92 years how it feels to see all of the growth, he surprised me by simply saying, “Well, it is a pretty nice place to live.” He’s right; after all, I like living here. And so I struggle with the hypocrisy of my longing to control some of the sprawl and of my resentment toward the people moving in around me.
All of these ideas had been boiling around in my head with more and more intensity, making it unpleasant to drive through the areas I loved most. Each “For Sale” sign and new labyrinth of asphalt made me cringe and frantically scan my mind for ways to stop it. Then, one day, I realized that the alfalfa was in bloom and the beans were beginning their stately climb into tall plants. The bull row of seed corn was peeking up, and out across the valley, the snow was gone from the mountains. I realized I was so busy worrying about the changes to my surroundings that I had stopped enjoying the simple pleasures associated with living here. I had traded my present for a worried prophecy of the future.
And yet, human interaction with nature is not always a one-sided victory. Entire cultures, like the Anasazi and the Aztec, have been wiped out, leaving only sparse physical evidence of their occupations. Though humans annihilated humans, it was nature that reclaimed the land. Even the most elaborate ruins cannot possibly indicate the complexity of the societies that inhabited the now naturalized landscape. With the world’s population growing as rapidly as it is, it might be naive to assume that the balance between resources and population demand could ever be restored. It is, however, interesting, with the destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Gustav and the great tsunami of 2004 fresh in our minds, to think about the way nature itself changes landscape. The sea and the wind are unstoppable, and the more ominous natural forces of earthquake and volcano have been changing the face of this land for millions of years. That eases my mind a bit.
We are bombarded with information about population increases, climate change and resource depletion, and we tend to mortgage the joys of living for the fear and anxiety of inevitable change. But our salvation might come in reclaiming a wider state of mind—one that doesn’t ignore the problems we face, but that takes time to listen to the rumble of thunder across the high desert and to drive the river roads aimlessly in search of the musky scent of Russian olive trees in bloom.