Review of 'One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot' | History | Smithsonian
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Review of 'One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot'

Review of 'One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot'

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One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot
By Richard Manning
Henry Holt
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"Cattle," writes richard manning, "do not belong in Montana." So you know right off — if you celebrate Earth Day, One Round River will accord with your worldview. Otherwise, you can expect apoplexy.

Or maybe not. Manning is clever, his indignation finely tuned. Whatever your conservation stance, he might give you new thoughts.

Stream-mucking steers. Corporate clear-cutters. SUV-riding California transplants transmogrified into "cappucino cowboys." Manning weaves them into a bravura analysis of what is beating up his beloved Big Blackfoot River. But the killer is a planned gold mine, cutely named Seven Up Pete. Its site is half the size of Manhattan. The hole will be a mile across. Excavators will heap their diggings 30 stories high. Miners will sprinkle cyanide over these piles, letting it trickle through, accumulating gold, until it oozes from the bottom. Its gold extracted, the deadly runoff will flow into man-made leach pools, which Manning says almost inevitably leak. And leaking cyanide is the least of Seven Up Pete's scourges.

Learning about the arrest of local hermit Theodore Kaczynski as the Unabomber, for mailing explosive devices to people he deemed nature's enemies, one of Manning's friends quipped: "Another promising career cut short." Manning asks: "Does this surprise you, that there might be environmentalists who sympathize with mad bombers?"

Manning is one irritated cowpoke. Yet, his book presents few characters wearing hats precisely black or white. Robert Redford, for instance, directed a hit movie, A River Runs Through It, based on Norman Maclean's book about fly-fishing and other matters along the Big Blackfoot (Smithsonian, September 1992). But Redford actually filmed a stand-in river because the Big Blackfoot's mountains are clear-cut, and most of its trout are gone. Logging's damage to rivers, Manning says, comes mainly from failure to leave bankside trees standing.

At one point, Manning skids his car off a snowy mountain road. Loggers, passing in a pickup truck, haul his car out, then announce they must leave before troopers arrive: "They'll give you a ticket for not calling a tow truck!" It is a paranoid fantasy to which they cling because it "proves" government's despicability. Similarly, implies Manning, logging — done right — may do less harm than environmentalists believe. Forests grow back.

In the meantime, environmentalist Robert Redford's movie had undesirable repercussions. After the film popularized the area, Manning's neighbors adopted a new phrase: "A realtor runs through it."

Manning rues the coming to his valley of Californian would-be cowboys, whom locals describe as "all hat and no horse." That is untrue: on ten-acre "ranchettes," they build themselves log mansions and do manage to graze a horse or two. But Manning admits that he and his friends also are immigrants in this country.

Real ranchers, like loggers, says Manning, wreak real destruction. Bison enhanced these dry prairies. But cows, liking moisture, bunch along rivers, creating mucky havoc.

Yet ranchers must also rely on the land. And some, it turns out, are dedicated range stewards — like the aptly named Land Lindbergh, son of the aviator — striving to ranch profitably while pioneering the use of nondestructive techniques.

So it goes in this book: we meet the "enemies" and they have no horns. But then Manning comes to Seven Up Pete and gold. "I haven't the slightest interest in providing balance to this story," he states unapologetically. "I don't want to talk to them, because they are evil."

He does not mean individual miners. He introduces an apostate mining engineer, who announces: "I'm not going to tear down any more mountains." But unlike logging and ranching, and maybe even the despised ranchettes, gold mining's damage, Manning says, is irreversible. Gold mining gouges up toxic metals, concentrates them, oozes them into the water table. "How can you ask me," inveighs Manning, "to trade clean rivers and my mountains for your Rolex watch?"

This book is about humanity's perverse love of gold. It is also about population growth, in Manning's words, "the sheer crushing weight of human biomass." It is about individuals, like the disgruntled Vietnam vet, now an "Environmental Ranger," secretly videotaping regulation-flaunting mines. Ultimately, it is about consuming ourselves out of our home. "Gold," Manning says, "is not life, and I do not need it."

Richard Wolkomir writes from Vermont.

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