Let’s cut to the chase. We’re talking about a severely warming planet. Here in Montana, it’s giving us wholesale drought, catastrophic wildfires and crazy weather extremes. The results? Weeks of summer air that’s unhealthy for people to breathe and downright dangerous for those with asthma or other breathing conditions. Ranchers are selling off major shares of their cow herds because there’s no grass on the range. Trout are dying in de-watered streams as fishing guides and fly shops watch their livelihoods evaporate with each overheated day. Farmers find their cash crops, such as winter wheat and barley, aren’t worth harvesting.
When I entered high school in the late 1970s, I spent more days than I can remember piloting a John Deere “R” tractor around the grain fields on our family ranch, dragging 14-feet of chisel plow. The tractor had no cab. It was hot and dusty. But there was no enveloping cloud of wildfire smoke. Ninety degrees was considered a wickedly hot day. Winter was real. My siblings and I ran our sleds from the county road where we caught the school bus down to the ranch house from December until spring. Nowadays that might be possible for a week or two once in five winters.
Floods and heat waves produced by wild weather are killing thousands elsewhere in the world, too. Toxic algae blooms, magnified by higher water temperatures, are devastating coastal ecosystems in Florida and other states and degrading lakes and rivers in the interior of the country. Weather extremes have knocked out power grids in California and Texas. Adequate snowpack and normal precipitation may give us temporary respite some years, but all indicators point to a higher frequency of heat, drought, fire and extreme weather. Here are some of the things I believe would help us here in Montana.
- Better Fire Management Practices on Public Land: The Robertson Draw fire started less than 10 miles south of Red Lodge on in mid-June. On day two it had grown to 200 acres, then exploded to over 20,000 acres in 48 hours. A month later its footprint was over 30,000 acres and crews were still working toward containment. Dozens of homes and structures were lost. How many millions of dollars and tons of smokes would have been saved if the fire had been snuffed on the second day? Creating a larger, more effective fire-fighting force that can respond very quickly to fires on public lands seems a sensible investment. These firefighters would be year-round government employees, preferably hired locally, thus creating job opportunities. During periods of respite from firefighting, they could engage in habitat-enhancing projects that help to reduce the incidence and severity of future wildfires.
- Programs to Increase Drought Resiliency for Farmers and Ranchers: I support incentives to bank forage for livestock in good years. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres are sometimes released for haying or grazing during drought years, but the forage quality is poor, and it undermines the goal of creating habitat for wildlife. Let’s allow some haying on CRP lands during good years with the requirements the hay must be stored for use during drought. I also support aggressive management of invasive plant species, particularly cheatgrass, on rangeland which would not only decrease fire severity but improve forage for livestock and wildlife. We can’t “drought-proof” the prairie but mitigating the impacts will help keep our farmers and ranchers in business.
- Carbon Reduction Programs: We know carbon emissions into the atmosphere, whether from automobiles, wildfires or power plants, are the root-cause of climate change. Reducing these emissions requires efforts in nearly every aspect of our lives. It means not only doing our part in America but exerting political and economic pressure on countries who are major carbon polluters such as China and India.