From Mexico to Missoula, Nereyda Calero’s journey
led her to help fellow immigrants.
STORY BY SAMANTHA WEBER | MANAGING EDITOR
WHEN FORMER U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would be rescinded in September 2017, 30-year-old Nereyda Calero, a Mexican immigrant and DACA recipient, was sitting in her Missoula home. When she heard the news, tears streamed down her face.
“I remember being there on the couch and I thought, ‘God, help me,’” Calero said. “I’ve got to do something. Help me fight for this.”
Three months later, Calero was chatting about immigration policy in Sen. Jon Tester’s Washington, D.C. office.
I first saw Calero at the Missoula Women’s March in January 2018. She spoke to a crowd packed shoulder-to-shoulder about her experience as an immigrant and a woman of color, and many people, including myself, were moved to tears by her passion. When I met her during the summer, I was surprised. During her January speech, she seemed larger than life. In reality, she speaks softly and exudes a quiet humility. Freckles splash across her round face beneath perfectly groomed eyebrows. She looks put together, and her appearance is always completed by a delicate, gold crucifix necklace. She didn’t strike me as the sort of person who would be comfortable giving ardent speeches, but she is when she’s talking about something for which she cares deeply.
At just eight years old, Calero crossed the Mexican border into Arizona with some relatives in the midst of blazing July heat. It was their fifth attempt. They made their way to Las Vegas, where she lived with family for years. In 2012, she came to Missoula for better work opportunities.
Before DACA became available in 2012, Calero dropped out of school to begin a long string of cleaning jobs. She’d been on the honor roll and dreamed of becoming a doctor or lawyer, but she always knew that, as an undocumented immigrant, there were few options for her future.
“That was very difficult, growing up knowing that time is passing by, you’re not going to become legal, you’re not going to be able to do what you want,” Calero said. “It’s very frustrating. It’s like you’re trying to walk and something’s pulling you back, you know?”
She applied for DACA immediately. She said she felt like she finally existed. DACA grants immigrants, who were brought to the U.S. as children, renewable two-year permits that protect recipients from deportation and allow them to get U.S. work permits.
After Calero received her DACA status, she enrolled in an emergency medical technician course and got a job at a local hospital and a driver’s license. She could finally drive to work and take her two young sons around town without a police car in her rearview mirror sending her heart racing.
“I was starving for this,” Calero said. “To be what I wanted to be.”
Calero carries herself quietly and she accepts praise with bashful smiles. She’s quick to give credit to other people. It appears she spent most of her life trying to blend into the crowd undetected.
Now she stands out. Since she began speaking up for better immigration policy, she’s become a leader for the immigrant community in Missoula. She speaks, fights and marches for those who can’t risk exposing themselves in the current fraught political climate, one riddled with anti-immigrant sentiment.
“They can’t put their voice out there because they’re afraid,” Calero said. “And I can do it for them because I don’t want them to go through this.”
Since President Donald Trump took office, Calero said the immigrant community has been increasingly frightened. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only had a small presence in Montana before the Trump administration took over. In 2018, ICE raided a commercial morel mushroom picking camp in Mineral County, arresting 10 people on immigration-related charges. A Mexican man and longtime resident of Hamilton was sentenced to deportation in September 2018 after ICE agents and U.S. Border Patrol agents showed up at his home early one March morning. Today, workplaces around Missoula are littered with racist graffiti. Calero has the evidence, photos and videos, on her cell phone.
She said some of the patients she cares for as an EMT at the hospital tell her Mexicans are terrorists, that she needs to go back to Mexico when her DACA status expires, if the program isn’t protected in the future. Her older son’s classmates have told him to leave, to just wait until Trump builds a wall. Both of her children were born in the U.S. She speaks to her kids in a mix of English and Spanish, but she said she hesitates to call out to them in Spanish in public now.
Calero feels especially motivated to act when racism and hate affect her children, or any children for that matter. Her younger son’s father was apprehended on his way to work four years ago in Missoula and immediately deported. Now, instead of looking to police to protect him, her son thinks of them as the bad people who took his father away. Those scars are permanent, Calero said, and no child deserves to live with them.
“This will affect kids present and future,” she said. “These are kids that we are making. We’re making them grow like this, with fear in their hearts.”
Though Calero has watched people grow more confident in spewing racism aloud, she said she can feel society changing for the better. She thinks a lot of people are as sick of injustice toward immigrants as she is.
“I think everybody wants to have a change after all that’s been happening,” Calero said. “We all want a change. And we’re not going to have a change while we have this administration.”
Year six of Missoula’s 10-year plan to house its homeless.
STORY BY KEITH SZUDARSKI | STAFF WRITER
ILLUSTRATIONS BY HALISIA HUBBARD
On a brisk November morning in 2017, the Missoula Fire Department, paramedics and law enforcement responded to an unresponsive male near the 600 block of Owen Street. Responders began CPR on Timothy Lloyd, a homeless 61-year-old, then transported him to Providence St. Patrick Hospital. After failed rescue efforts, he died from hypothermia.
In 2018, the Montana Point in Time Survey, conducted by local homeless service providers and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, reported that Missoula has 293 homeless people, 23 percent of the statewide homeless population, and the highest percentage of any place in Montana. Missoula began working toward ending homelessness in 2012, when Mayor John Engen and Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss signed into effect Reaching Home, a 10-year plan to house Missoula’s homeless.
A 2018 Missoula housing report states the homeless population in January of 2017 was 344. The report blamed Missoula’s housing boom and a limited rental market. It called 2017 the third consecutive year of high lot sales, citing an 8.1 percent increase in the average price per lot.
In June 2017, Reaching Home introduced its Coordinated Entry System (CES). Its mission is “to rapidly respond to people experiencing literal homelessness” through collaborative efforts to ensure the experience is brief and nonrecurring.
The Poverello Center is one of four entry points for Reaching Home’s CES. Elise Watts, the Poverello’s shelter manager, said the biggest hurdle for Missoula’s homeless is still affordable housing.
“Some of our temporary tenants have multiple jobs,” Watts said.
Median gross rent for Missoula in 2016 was $818 per month, a 3 percent increase from 2010.Watts said she believes a lot of the shelter’s patrons experience homelessness as the result of “one missed incident that leads to them being displaced.” Missing one month’s rent or losing a job can lead people to the shelter.
Some patrons faced additional obstacles. According to Watts, mental health and substance abuse can hinder attempts toward housing. The Poverello Center has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. The shelter has a Homeless Outreach Team that assists those who do not go to their facility, sometimes due to alcohol consumption.
Dean Littlelight, 40, is one of Missoula’s displaced.“I’ve been homeless on and off for years,” he said.
Littlelight and his friend “Griz” hang out on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn. It’s neutral ground for the city’s homeless. Both men said they appreciate the Poverello Center’s efforts, especially its outreach team. Littlelight said the team helped him find Section 8 housing. However, he’s still waiting for that to be processed.
The Union Gospel Mission (UGM) of Missoula offers a day center on the city’s north side, seven miles from the site of Timothy Lloyd’s death. UGM of Missoula helped eight people find permanent housing as of September 2017. Since Lloyd’s death, UGM of Missoula opens its doors overnight whenever the temperature drops below 11 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We’re trying to fill in the gaps,” April Seat, 39, said. Seat, UGM of Missoula’s director of outreach and volunteers, said the day center created new hours to offer services when the Poverello Center locks its doors.
Reaching Home is in its sixth year. Despite Missoula’s recent growth spurt and the increased cost of housing — the median sale price of homes has been on the rise since 2010 — Reaching Home’s collaborative effort continues to roll on. Other CES entry points for the program’s latest phase include the YWCA, Montana 2-1-1 and the Salvation Army. There are also grassroots efforts to help homeless in Missoula.
Terri “Tuner” Wood, 58, founded Set Free Street Ministry after UGM of Missoula stopped serving full meals in April 2018.“At first, I thought that I would just visit downtown, then decided to serve what food I could,” Wood said. “Everything that is served has been bought with donations.”
The Missoula County Health Department recently shut her down for lack of licensure. Wood is working on building a food truck that meets standards.
Wood sets up a small table of clothes three days a week in the spring to help those in need. When she comes across food that would otherwise be wasted, Wood said she prepares and hands it out despite the Missoula County Health Department’s order.
On a weekday in September 2018, Wood left her table in front of the courthouse to bring sandwiches in bread bags to Littlelight and Griz.
“Providing love and acceptance to faceless people is the most gratifying aspect of my work,” Wood said. “Feeding them is not the only way to help them.”
College in an education desert
When it comes to higher education, geographic isolation and inadequate internet access have left millions of Americans at a disadvantage. Here’s what one high school is doing about it.
Story by Hannah Kearse | Staff Writer
STUDENTS pour into the halls of Thompson Falls High School every 45 minutes, seven times a day, five days a week. Through a gauntlet of blue lockers, slow streams of teenagers flow in opposite directions as they navigate toward class. Several of these students find their way to the Learning Center, the only place in town where high-speed internet is reliable enough to take online courses.
Inside, Erik Melendez, a senior, balances a pile of loose papers on his lap as he hunches over a computer keyboard. Melendez rests a Birkenstock sandal and wool-covered foot on one knee, which bounces up and down as he considers his prospects. He says his parents expect him to go to college, and he wants to major in comparative literature, preferably in New York City.
Thompson Falls, located in Sanders County, Montana, is a long way from NYC. It is a small town tucked into a narrow valley between the Cabinet and Coeur d’Alene mountains. There are at least a dozen churches, and the nearest Starbucks is 90 miles away. The Clark Fork River flows gently by, and alfalfa fields cover patches of undeveloped land. A two-lane highway, MT 200, runs right through downtown, where the traffic slows to a trickle and the 1,400 residents know it as Main Street.
For all its small-town charm, one thing Thompson Falls lacks is a college. It is about a two-hour drive on a winding, mountain highway to the nearest institutions of higher education. This makes it too far to commute for students who want to study close to family and community, which is especially important for nontraditional students, those who are older, have children or work full-time.
This makes Thompson Falls part of something you’ve probably never heard of: an education desert. According to 2016 research from The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, 38 percent of first-time, full-time freshman choose to attend a college within a 50-minute drive from their home, a statistic that has held true for almost four decades. Areas more than an hour drive from a public college or university are considered physical education deserts, because it puts those people who want a post-secondary education, but can’t commute or move, at a distinct disadvantage.
According to an analysis by The Chronicle for Higher Education, more than 11 million adults in the United States live more than a 60-minute drive from a college, mostly in rural parts of the country and in the West. Not surprisingly, the states with the greatest percentage of adults living in education deserts are Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. This means one in three Montanans, about 350,000 people, live too far from a college or university to easily commute.
Sixteen of those people are the Thompson Falls High School students enrolled in the Running Start Program, which allows Melendez and his fellow students to take up to two online college courses a semester through Flathead Valley Community College.
Melendez wants to study world literature but Thompson Falls High School doesn’t offer it, so he turns to online courses to fill the gap. “That’s what’s exciting for me,” he said. “Just learning about things that I’m really passionate about, plus the freedom that comes with it. I’m just tired of being restrained all the time.”
But this is a relatively new option for Thompson Falls High School students, one that millions of Americans don’t have.
While the geographical layout of post-secondary institutions has changed little in four decades, technological improvements—namely computers and high-speed internet—have altered the impact of education deserts. Opportunities to take courses online allow students who live too far from a college to begin the long journey toward earning a degree. High-speed internet enables students to video chat with distant classmates and teachers and to stream instructional videos.
But this digital panacea is not available everywhere. Surprisingly, the U.S. is ranked only tenth among developed nations in its broadband coverage, and lack of access to online learning opportunities continues to impact rural and impoverished inner-city communities. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in 2018, 24 million Americans lacked access to broadband internet at home (which the FCC defines as 25 megabits per second or faster). Millions more rely on slower and less reliable DSL services.
The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, looked at how slow internet speeds impact education deserts. Researchers Victoria Rosenboom and Kristin Blagg mapped those places without access to internet speeds of 25 MBps against physical education deserts. They found that about 3.1 million Americans live in both a physical and online education desert, limiting their options and access to the technological and educational advantages that larger communities thrive on.
In Montana, 290,000 people live in an online education desert, mostly in small towns in the Northern Rocky Mountains and large swaths of prairie in the eastern part of the state. Thompson Falls is the 297th most connected town in Montana, with an average download speed of just 4.28 MBps—a whopping 852 percent slower than the national average.
In 2000, the Thompson Falls Public Library was the first place in town to get internet, and it was dial-up. It now has two DSL lines at 15 MBps each, but internet speed is often slow and inconsistent, even though it costs $400 a month. Library Director Lynn Kersten still jokes about the conversations she’s had with business owners about internet speed. When speeds drop to a frustrating crawl on Main Street, work stops and people step out of their businesses to check in with each other.
The high school, though, is in the fast lane, thanks to the hard work of Doree Thilmony. For the past seven years, Thilmony, Thompson Falls High School’s technological coordinator and science teacher, has applied for grants from the FCC to improve the school’s internet infrastructure. The U.S. government invests $10 billion a year on subsidies for broadband infrastructure. E-rate, an FCC program, provides grants to eligible schools and libraries across the country. Thilmony has brought about $250,000 to the school over the years, and it now has fiber optic cables and an internet speed of 100 MBps for about 50 users at once.
“I am a personal user and there is no way I could get that speed without paying quite a bit of money,” said Thilmony. “E-rate is definitely a program that helps us give the type of quality to our students.”
Faster internet speeds allowed Thilmony’s science class to take tests online this year for the first time. The program does all the grading, which saves her time. There’s an option to submit homework assignments as well, but Thilmony doesn’t use it because some students don’t have computers and most don’t have reliable internet at home.
“I told my [online] teacher about my situation,” Melendez said. “A lot of the time I feel like they don’t believe me. I’m not trying to get out of doing my work. I enjoy doing it. It’s just circumstances are against me sometimes.”
The rest of Thompson Falls didn’t qualify for a federal grant, which leaves older, nontraditional students at a disadvantage. Online courses just don’t work if you don’t have ready access to high-speed internet, and DSL and satellite just won’t cut it. “If you were talking about a local community member who wanted to take classes,” said Jodi Morgan, the high school’s counselor. “I would say that’s where there is a need in the community. If you’re older, a nontraditional student, then you’re kind of on your own to find internet access.”
Morgan estimates 20 to 30 percent of the high school students considered attending college when she first started 10 years ago. Last year, almost 80 percent of the graduating class left Thompson Falls to attend two and four-year colleges. But there are still plenty of Thompson Falls residents who would be unable to move to the Big City for college.
On the line
Wildland firefighters learn to survive in the era of megafires
Story by Keith Szudarski | Staff Writer
Photos by Reed Klass | Staff Photographer
ON JULY 18, 2017, a storm rolled through Seeley Lake, Montana. The clouds churned and lightning flashed, momentarily illuminating the peaks of the scenic Swan Mountains east of Highway 83. The valley had experienced an early, hot summer, and when a lightning bolt struck Rice Ridge, it sparked a forest fire Bob Vanden Heuvel will never forget.
First-year firefighter Trenton Johnson, 19, was part of an initial attack team sent to begin the difficult task of putting out a forest fire. When they arrived on the west side of Florence Lake, six miles north of the town of Seeley Lake, they found the fire burning in a thick stand of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir, the ground littered with downed trees. They watched as the smoking bulk of a burned tree toppled into the fire.
As the team lined up behind the sawyers, they heard a crack overhead. The top of a snag broke off and sent the top third of a 70-foot tree crashing down toward them. According to the official report of the incident, the broken tree “whizzed by like a fastball” and “firefighters fell like bowling pins.” The tree brushed one firefighter’s shoulder as it struck Johnson’s helmet, knocking him unconscious and pinning his legs.
Vanden Heuvel, paramedic and former chief of the Seeley Lake Rural Fire Department (SLRFD), waited at the Seeley Lake airport for the helicopter that transported Johnson. He knew there had been an accident in his district, but he had no idea how bad it was. When the helicopter landed, its manager waved his crew and Life Flight over. “The first thing I saw was the white feet sticking out,” Vanden Heuvel said. It was his first inkling that something serious had occurred on the hill that afternoon.
Johnson died in the Life Flight helicopter on the way to the hospital in Missoula. It was his first season as a wildland firefighter.
The fire that set the stage for the era of megafires happened in Yellowstone National Park in 1988. An unusually dry spring led to 1.2 million acres being burned.
Thousands of firefighters fought the fires with the assistance of dozens of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. With fires raging throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other areas in the western United States, staffing levels of the National Park Service and other land management agencies were inadequate, and more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel were brought in to assist in wildfire suppression efforts. The firefighting effort cost $120 million ($250 million in 2018 dollars).
The epic Yellowstone fire was once thought to be an anomaly, but this is no longer the case. Intense, resource-draining fire seasons have been on the rise since Yellowstone. The Union of Concerned Scientists has shown the number of fires larger than 1,000 acres has increased from 140 between 1980 and 1989 to 250 between 2000 and 2012. The study also indicates that the average length of wildfire seasons in the western United States grew from five months in the 1970s to over seven months in 2012. In a Guardian article published in 2018, Alissa Greenberg wrote that California’s fire seasons last 78 days longer than they did 50 years ago.
Data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) indicates that three million acres burned in the U.S. between 1985 and 1994. Between 2005 and 2014, NIFC showed almost seven million acres burned, more than twice as much as the previous decade. In 2015, 10.1 million acres burned in a single year, making it the largest fire season in recorded history. In 2018, more than 37,000 fires burned a whopping 4.25 million acres in the first seven months.
The reason? Decades of fire suppression and an increase of average temperature in the western U.S. by 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The National Research Council suggests as average global temperatures increase, the total number of acres scorched each year will quadruple per degree of increase.
This puts wildland firefighters at increased risk of injury and death, as they push themselves to their physical and emotional limits, awake for days and sleeping on the ground, even as they deal with their grief and loss at their comrades’ deaths. Twenty-nine wildland firefighters died the year Yellowstone burned, but in 2017, national fatalities dropped to 14.
These numbers, however, do not reflect the growing trend in fatalities per year. Between 1960 and 1989, there were 10.2 wildfire-related deaths per year. From 1990 to 2015, that number was 17, a 67 percent increase.
Part of the problem is more people are building more structures in fire-prone areas, especially in the American West. In 2007, landscape ecologist David Theobald and Colorado State University research scientist William Romme published an important paper in “Landscape and Urban Planning.” They recognized that “over the past several decades, the western U.S. has observed increased temperature, increased wildfire activity, and expansion of the wildland-urban interface,” and, as a result, they projected the longer fire seasons and higher fire frequencies we are seeing today.
A 2018 article by 11 research scientists, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates the wildland-urban interface in the U.S. “grew rapidly from 1990 to 2010 in terms of both number of new houses (from 30.8 to 43.4 million, 41 percent growth), and land area (33 percent growth), making it the fastest-growing land use type in the conterminous United States.”
This increase puts billions of dollars worth of property at risk. Just ask the residents of Paradise, California. In early November, the Camp fire burned more than 180,000 acres and 7,000 buildings, virtually incinerating Paradise, a town of 26,000 people, 170 miles north of San Francisco. Farther south, the Woolsey and Hill fires burned more than 90,000 acres near Los Angeles and forced the evacuation of Malibu. These statistics make it the most deadly and destructive fire in California’s history. According to Fortune Magazine, the estimated cost of the conflagration is expected to top $19 billion.
This probably comes as no surprise to Casey Grant, writer for the National Fire Protocol Association (NFPA). Grant wrote that nine of the top 10 most expensive wildland-urban interface incidents ever recorded have occurred since 1990. “This includes the October  fires in Northern California, where cumulative property losses are expected to exceed $3 billion, and where 42 people died. In 2016, the Fort McMurray fire in Western Canada also resulted in direct property losses over $3 billion, with more than 3,000 structures lost and two fatalities, firefighters and civilians.”
The Rice Ridge fire, a few miles from the fire Trenton Johnson died fighting, eventually threatened 1,719 structures and burned 150,000 acres, an area the size of Chicago. At its peak, it was at the top of the nation’s wildfire priority list and cost more than $30 million to put out.
But what is rarely mentioned in the media is the increased risk to the wildland firefighters on the line. Not only is climate change making fires bigger, more frequent and more intense, but there are more buildings to protect from the flames. And on wildland-urban interface-intensive assignments, the instinctual drive to protect people’s homes and the pressure from homeowners to save what is likely their most prized possession can force firefighters to work themselves and their crews almost to exhaustion.
Josh Starbuck is a barrel-chested ex-smoke jumper who fought wildfires in Canada and the United States. Today he is a realtor in California, a state that seems to be on fire all the time. He’ll never forget arriving at the Esperanza fire in the fall of 2006 to learn that five firefighters had died.
Starbuck, who spent years fighting wildfires all over North America, said decision making can play a big role in determining the outcome of fires. As an example, Engine 57 was part of the initial attack on the Esperanza fire. The bulky Type III engine arrived at the fire around 5 a.m. and navigated unpaved roads toward homes in the fire’s path. Roughly two hours later, the fire exploded, and the firefighters sought refuge in their engine. By 8 a.m., the fire had engulfed Engine 57 and killed five firefighters, three on scene and two in the hospital. They shouldn’t have risked their lives to protect homes.
One of the most striking differences Starbuck noticed between firefighting in Canada and the U.S. was enforcement of work-to-rest ratios, a set number of hours of sleep required between hours on shift. When homes and property are in a fire’s path, like those on the Camp and Rice Ridge fires, firefighters may work up to 20 hours a day. It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for firefighters to be working and on shift for more than 24 consecutive hours.
“There’s no breaking work-to-rest without full crew consent in Canada,” Starbuck said. In the U.S. it can be as simple as a crew boss or superintendent telling crew members when they’ll get to sleep. When firefighters are pushed to their limits and sacrifice sleep for hours and suppression demands, the imbalance can lead to poor judgment and complacency, which can lead to injury and death, both on and off the fireline.
According to a 2016 article on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website, “Being awake for at least 24 hours is equal to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10%. This is higher than the legal limit (0.08% BAC) in all states.” This means wildland firefighters with mental states that would make it unlawful to drive are asked to do the dangerous work of fighting increasingly large and intense forest fires.
But such dangers are rarely considered. Frequent exposure to the dangers of wildland firefighting numbs firefighters. A 2010 article published bythe Wildland Fire Lessons Learned
Center started with the quote, “No problem, I’ve done this before.” And then, in a blink of an eye, it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.
A Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) released following Johnson’s death on the Florence Fire echoes a similar mentality. The word “snag” appears in the report 16 times. An example: “Yeah, there were snags. It was kind of another day on the job.”
The casual iteration of “snag” speaks to the desensitization referred to by the Lessons Learned Center. Johnson had just arrived on the Florence fire. He and his crew were still charting the lay of the land. The tree that took his life wasn’t one he was cutting. The incident that took his life was simply the nexus of time and chance.
Another Lessons Learned article said not every mishap results from complacency: there are things outside of our control, but we ought to take “the few extra minutes to be thorough in our responsibilities.”
Wildland firefighters have little control over gravity or climate. They cannot control climate change to reduce the size and intensity of wildfires, and have little control over where people are allowed to build their homes. Those responsibilities are usually larger and more complex for even the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.
The only thing firefighters can control is themselves.
What firefighters and their agencies can do is reconfigure their tactics and keep bravado in check. “Canada has stricter travel guidelines,” Starbuck offered as an example. “Don’t push it, stick with the work-to-rest ratio and rethink mentality.”
Vanden Heuvel resigned from the Seeley Lake Rural Fire Department after the Florence fire and took a job as a paramedic in Missoula. He still thinks about Johnson’s accident. He often wonders what could have been done differently to prevent the untimely death of a 19-year-old firefighter who was helping him protect his district and the homes of thousands of people in Seeley Lake.
Almost every day, he wonders if it was really worth it.
Making Montana FireSmart
THE MONTANA DEPARTMENT of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Prevention and Preparedness Program was created to educate Montana homeowners living in the wildland-urban interface on how they can help to reduce the number of wildfires, and to protect their properties when they occur. But there is some concern that the message isn’t getting out and property owners aren’t doing all they can to make their communities fire proof.
Dave Aicher, 67, spent 38 years working for the Forest Service, and battled numerous blazes on the prairies of Eastern Montana. Now, Aicher lives near Seeley Lake, south of Lake Inez and west of Highway 83, not far from the Florence fire that claimed Trenton Johnson’s life. Aicher and his family have had to evacuate their home twice during wildfires.
From above, Aicher’s neighborhood is dotted with green, and trees obstruct clear views into his neighbors’ properties. Aicher cleared the forest surrounding his house to reduce the likelihood a wildfire could ignite it, and some of his neighbors have as well. But there is still ample fuel in the neighborhood, because creating defensible space isn’t as comprehensive as it needs to be.
“If I do mine [and] my next-door neighbor doesn’t do theirs, what’s the point of doing mine?” Aicher said. “I’m going to lose my house.”
This combination of inadequate defensible space and an overabundance of combustible materials means firefighters are put at risk while protecting homes and barns.
Aicher said reducing these risks involves more than just cleaning up individual properties. He recommends a more unified approach, where entire communities work together to make themselves FireSmart. Otherwise, he said, houses will continue to burn.
At the Crossroads
Violence behind the bars of Montana’s only private prison
Story by LJ Dawson | Staff Writer
WHEN William Allen returned to the Crossroads Correctional Center (CCC) in 2009 from a California prison, he was shocked by what he found: religious restrictions on sweat lodges and retaliation for speaking out against prison administration. Two cavities abscessed when Allen was forced to wait months for dental treatment, he said, and the correctional officers no longer acted respectfully to the inmates.
But what jolted him most was the violence.
Soon after he arrived, he said, he was pulled from his cell late at night to fight with the prison employees. “You know when you’re going down into that intake cell, and there’s gonna be three to four [prison guards] in that cell and you’re going to have to do your thing,” he said. “They would technically just jump you.”
Allen, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, was accustomed to conflict with guards, since he had spent most of his life behind bars. He entered the tangled web of the legal system in California when he was just 10 years old. He grew up in what he calls an outlaw family, surrounded by violence and drugs, and started his first stint in prison in 1982, at the age of 22. He spent years in San Quentin and Pelican Bay, two of the most violent high-security prisons in California. Then Allen was convicted of an armed robbery in 1994, and he was transferred to CCC in 1999.
Allen was one of the first prisoners in CCC, Montana’s shiny new private prison in Shelby, owned by CoreCivic. He said it was a good prison in 1999. CCC did everything by the book, from treating inmates with respect to offering vocational programs and trade school in carpentry.
But when he returned in 2009, the prison was a completely different place. “It was really good for a long time, and then once it headed south, it just kept on going.”
Allen’s allegations of what life was like in CoreCivic’s prison may seem shocking, but his experiences echo recent lawsuits against CoreCivic’s and concernsraised by the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) of Montana, which led to a 2016 state audit of the prison. But in the two years since, it doesn’t seem that much has improved for the inmates locked away in Montana’s sole private prison.
Originally called Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), CoreCivic was the first private American prison company. Founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1983, it led the for-profit prison boom in the 1980s and 1990s, as America’s incarcerated population exploded. These facilities promised a cost-effective solution to an expensive problem: tough-on-drugs policies and an increased reliance on incarceration as a form of punishment meant that more Americans were going to prison, and they were spending more time behind bars for their crimes than ever before.
These policies have led to a rather unwelcome accomplishment. The United States incarcerates 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, the largest percentage of its own citizens of any country. Private prisons hold more than 8 percent of all American prisoners, and between 2000 and 2016, the number of prisoners in private facilities increased five times faster than the total incarcerated population.
CoreCivic has grown steadily and expanded to immigration detention centers, a sector of the company that has grown since 2016. Today, CoreCivic is the second-largest private prison company in the U.S. behind the GEO Group. Together, these corporations manage more than half of the private prison contracts in the country, with combined revenues of $3.5 billion. CoreCivic alone owns 45 secure correctional facilities and manages nine others, as well as 24 residential reentry facilities, and has reported annual revenues of around $1.77 billion since 2013.
The federal government and 27 states use private prisons, with New Mexico and Montana leading the nation in their reliance on them. New Mexico houses 43 percent of its prisoners in private facilities, with Montana close behind at 39 percent.
Montana began flirting with the private prison industry in 1996, shortly before a Montana inmate incarcerated in a Texas private prison was beaten to death, and while Allen and other inmates from Montana were being shuffled from Texas to Tennessee. CoreCivic won the contract and built the private prison in Shelby, Montana, despite local residents’ fears of escaped inmates.
By 1999, when Allen and other convicts had arrived to make the new prison home, the dying town of Shelby—best known for its old neon signs, glowing fields of barley and wheat and proximity to the wonders of Glacier National Park—had accepted the economic promises of Montana’s first private prison.
The town of 3,212 people now houses almost 700 state and federal inmates in a concrete-and-barbed-wire compound that occupies a bluff overlooking Shelby. A white water tower watches over both three-winged buildings that house the inmates, the word Shelby scrawled boldly in red across its side.
CoreCivic was founded on the premise of solving tough government challenges in cost-effective ways, according to Damon T. Hininger, CCC’s president and chief executive officer, in a 2016 press release. Despite such promises, civil rights groups have challenged the idea of for-profit prisons ever since they appeared in the mid-1980s, because the perceived conflict of interest between making money for shareholders and caring for inmates often results in poor inmate care.
Since 1998, the U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups and the media have investigated CoreCivic and its facilities for a litany of alleged improprieties, including spates of excessive violence, poorly trained and inadequate numbers of guards, poor food and lack of medical care. CCC is no exception, and has come under scrutiny for its practices since the year William Allen was transferred there in 2009.
The ACLU of Montana, for instance, filed a class action lawsuit against the Shelby facility in 2009 for religious discrimination against Native Americans attempting to practice sweat lodge ceremonies. Allen, who was part of the class action lawsuit, said he sweat every weekend when he was first held in CCC from 1999 to 2004. When he returned in 2009, the tone of the administration had changed.
The guards would simply not call prisoners out of their cells when sweats were planned. Allen said they would blame it on fire danger, but often it seemed they simply did not have enough staff to allow the ceremonies to take place. He said that he was denied herbs necessary for the ceremonies and prison staff showed spiritual elders so much disrespect they stopped coming.
“For ceremonies to be disrespected and treated in the manner they are, it generates an undercurrent of animosity,” Allen said. The sweat lodge ceremonies are the Native inmates’ church, he said. The denial of these ceremonies was the most difficult part of the final years Allen spent incarcerated at CCC.
Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, said in a late November 2018 email that these claims are “patently false.” But a May 2009 report by a Montana Department of Corrections (MDOC) investigation team confirmed many of the allegations in the class action suit, including that “sweats have been canceled due to cold weather and lack of CCC staffing.”
Shortly after the ACLU of Montana’s 2009 lawsuit against CoreCivic in Montana, the national arm of the ACLU sued the company in Idaho over the level of violence between inmates in the Idaho Correctional Center, a prison that was called the “Gladiator School” by the Idaho inmates. The lawsuit named 23 separate inmate plaintiffs who had suffered beatings from other inmates with little to no correctional officer intervention and inadequate medical care after the assaults. In the lawsuit, the ACLU alleged that violence was “entirely preventable and was the result of deliberate indifference by ICC staff.”
The suit detailed serious injuries, guards cleaning up blood for hours after assaults and refusal of medical care after the beatings occurred. It claimed most of these assault victims were sex offenders who received threats before the assaults and were refused help after attempting to gain protection from prison staff.
CoreCivic firmly denied the allegations and settled the case in 2011. The state of Idaho took over the prison in 2014. In 2017, a federal jury found the company had violated the settlement agreement. An FBI investigation into the chronic understaffing of the Idaho facility found that employee records had been forged. However, the FBI declined to press charges because the evidence did not suggest criminal intent and was attributed to low-level employees.
The “Gladiator School” prison controversy in Idaho sparked concern in the Montana Legislature about the state’s own CoreCivic prison. A federal audit of CCC was considered, but the Legislature chose a state audit of the prison instead. CoreCivic lobbyists opposed this contract compliance audit in 2016. The state audit of the prison was performed in the fall of 2016. The prison passed, but the audit said that the MDOC “should enhance its oversight, particularly in the areas of security staffing, health services and food service.”
Since the audit in 2016, the MDOC Quality Assurance Office has conducted two annual license inspections of CCC. It found issues with counting inmates and the internal grievance process by which inmates file complaints. The inspections also found issues with dental care provided by the facility in 2016 and issues with the CCC’s food contractor in 2017. All of these issues were required to be addressed by CCC before the contract license could be renewed.
CCC is accredited by outside agencies, including the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). ACA’s and NCCHC’s most recent on-site reviews were conducted early in 2018, and according to the MDOC, the last state health inspection of CCC was in March 2017. The prison passed all accreditations and no deficiencies in medical services were found.
The violence at private prisons is often correlated with inadequate staff training and short staffing, like that of the Idaho “Gladiator School” prison. The largest continuous expense for private prison companies is staffing, said Alex Friedmann, a private prison researcher, reporter and advocate who was incarcerated in a CoreCivic facility in the 1990s. Private prison companies like CoreCivic pay less and offer less training and benefits to their staff than government-run prisons, and they understaff facilities by leaving positions vacant as long as possible, Friedmann said.
Seven former and current CCC inmates said they experienced issues with understaffing in the last ten years. Two former CCC employees said they experienced understaffing, and both said they experienced a tactic called double-booking, where a case worker or an education teacher will be scheduled to work two jobs on the same day: their usual job, and as a correctional officer. One person cannot work both jobs at once. Often, the employee worked the prison floor as an officer while leaving his/her other position vacant.
An FBI investigation into the Idaho prison in 2013 found that CoreCivic used similar practices reported by CCC inmates to understaff the prison.
The employment practices of private prisons result in high turnover rates and greater instability, which in turn result in more violence, Friedmann said. Rape, murders, riots and violence occur in all correctional facilities, but “they tend to be more prevalent in private facilities because of the business model, because of the staffing issues,” Friedmann said.
A 2018 Prison Rape Elimination Act audit of CCC said the prison was understaffed, and other CoreCivic employees from facilities around the country have to travel to fill its positions. The company pays for employees to stay in a hotel in Shelby, because it cannot staff the prison with local employees. The prison is now working with 35 fewer staff members in 2018 than in 2015, despite around the same number of federal and state inmates being incarcerated at the facility.
Friedmann said the lack of transparency and oversight of private prisons around the U.S. allows cutting corners. In Montana, the private-prison model relies on the on-site reporting by a state contractor, who oversees staffing, inmate grievances and other requirements. But the contractor is usually a former employee of CoreCivic that worked at CCC prior to MDOC employment. A 2016 state audit expressed concern about the ability of MDOC to provide oversight, because “the department relies, to some extent, on the contractor to self-report issues with staffing.” In March 2018, MDOC added a full-time investigator to the prison in response to concerns.
Private prisons also do not have to follow the same open records laws as public prisons. The private operation of the prisons prevents them from falling under government transparency laws, even if they provide a public service, Friedmann said. The number of violent incidents at the CCC facility is anyone’s guess, because they are not publicly reported.
“Private prisons go to great lengths in order to keep prison information from civil liberties groups,” said SK Rossi, the ACLU of Montana advocacy and policy director, “including going as far as to tamper with legal mail and monitor the mail that is going in and out of their facilities.”
Rossi said the CCC prison is not being run at the same standard as a state facility. “Our biggest concern is that we have multiple reports of understaffing and violence occurring at that facility. We also have multiple reports of inadequate medical care, and in some case medical care that has been denied completely.”
The ACLU of Montana received 18 complaints from January to August 2018 about the CCC facility. The letters included seven complaints detailing medical care issues, four about prison conditions and three concerning correctional officers.
Rossi said the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, which means the government should not be allowed to mistreat people simply because they have been convicted of a crime.
“If you are going to deprive human beings of their liberty because they have committed a crime, that is one thing. But if you’re going to put them in prison, you are going to be responsible for taking care of them and treating them as human beings and not as animals,” Rossi said.
CoreCivic refused a request to tour CCC for this article, and Gilchrist maintains that, “any allegation that we compromise inmate care for any reason is baseless and ignores the high-quality services CoreCivic provides.”
Still, the lawsuits against CoreCivic nationwide continue to pile up, topping the 1,200 mark by 2010.
Incarceration limits inmates’ abilities to advocate for themselves and seek redress about prison conditions. Grievances, which are paper complaints filed by prisoners, must make it through four stages of internal prison review before they can make it to a public court. CCC has been accused by multiple inmates of not responding to grievances or improperly addressing them.
Caitlin Boland Aarab, a defense attorney who provides legal counsel for several inmates in Shelby, said she hears many complaints from her clients about prison conditions. She said prisoners face an almost insurmountable number of legal barriers to a successful filing of a Section 1983 lawsuit, named for the Civil Rights Act of 1871, that allows people to sue the government for civil rights violations.
Prisoners have no legal help navigating the internal grievance process within the prison, and the requirements can be complex, Boland Aarab said. “So they have to jump through all these hoops in the prison and do them all perfectly, in order to even be entitled to a lawsuit,” she said.
If the case makes it past further legal hurdles to a jury, the mistake must be proved “unreasonable” at the time it was committed by prison staff. The prison facing the lawsuit will have a lawyer. The prisoner suing the prison will not.
“If you even get to a jury with a 1983 case, let alone win, you have one hell of a case,” Boland Aarab said. Even legitimate claims that should be addressed rarely see the light of day, she said.
Ray Carpenter waited until he was released and sued the prison four months later, in July 2018. He sued for damages related to a beating he suffered from another inmate that was followed by a lack of adequate medical care in 2016. His lawsuit is similar to the cases described in the ACLU’s 2010 class action lawsuit filed against the Idaho “Gladiator School.”
According to the lawsuit, Carpenter was beaten in his cell by another inmate for more than five minutes without any prison staff intervention. He began puking; his cellmate helped him to his bunk. He was eventually cleared to go to the medical treatment center in the prison later that night.
When Carpenter arrived after vomiting and blacking out repeatedly, he was minimally treated and told to rest. He vomited for five days while in the prison’s medical unit before being transferred to a hospital in Great Falls. He immediately underwent brain surgery for a hematoma and skull damage. While in surgery, a brain bleed was discovered.
Judy Beck, communications director for MDOC, responded in an email about a September 2018 inmate assault that these types of criminal behaviors happen in all correctional facilities. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources in any facility to keep everyone watched at all times. We continue to review major incidents to find any areas that can be improved upon,” Beck said.
This is small consolation for Carpenter, who is suing the prison, the medical provider and individual staff members for sustained symptoms such as headaches, memory loss, impaired vision and trouble concentrating.
Eight other current and former inmates reported issues of violence at CCC since 2009, including lack of staff response, poor medical treatment following assaults and refusal to listen to inmates attempting to avoid conflict with each other.
Lawsuits have recently been filed around the country concerning violence and lack of medical treatment at CoreCivic facilities. A widow sued the company in March 2018 for wrongful death after her husband died following an assault in a CoreCivic facility in Tennessee. In August, a lawsuit was filed against the company for denying insulin to diabetic prisoners in Tennessee.
Back in Montana, the state is investigating a September 2018 assault at CCC that is similar to Carpenter’s. Nathan Lake, 33, was beaten so badly he was released on medical parole while still in a coma a month after the assault.
The state of Montana decided to extend CoreCivic’s contract around the time Carpenter filed his lawsuit. CoreCivic’s contract with MDOC was up for renewal in 2019. The ACLU of Montana was an outspoken opponent of extending the contract, citing multiple complaints about prison conditions that it receives from inmates on a weekly basis. Despite the advocacy of civil rights groups, inmates and their families, and some legislators, Montana Governor Steve Bullock extended CCC’s contract with the state in July 2018.
The governor did not offer the ten-year contract extension CoreCivic wanted. Instead, he agreed to extend the contract for two years in exchange for $34 million, which had been held by CoreCivic in a “buy-back” account to fund the state’s purchase of the prison when the contract ends. The CCC contract with MDOC will be up for renewal again in 2021. The contract between CoreCivic and the MDOC was still being finalized in November 2018.
The ACLU of Montana accused CoreCivic of leveraging the state’s budget crisis to receive the contract extension. Housing inmates is expensive. According to the MDOC, Montana State Prison is over capacity and could not safely house the 570 inmates that CCC now holds. “Without the additional capacity Crossroads provides, the state would need to build another secure facility, approved and funded by the Legislature,” Beck wrote in an email.
Why not build its own facility, or take over CCC? Because Montana currently pays $73.87 per inmate per day at CCC compared to $109.27 at the state prison. That’s a savings of $35.40 per inmate per day, which amounts to about $9 million a year. For a cash-strapped state like Montana, that’s a whole lot of money.
Shortly after Montana extended the CoreCivic contract, Allen paroled out of CCC. When Allen walked through the gates on August 5, 2018, one day short of the anniversary of his return to prison 24 years earlier, he wasn’t exactly a free man. He still wore an ankle bracelet and had to report to his parole officer on a regular basis, but he no longer had to eat every meal in the chow hall or sleep in a cell.
Allen is 59 years old and will be on parole until he’s almost 70. He just reconnected on Facebook with a son he hasn’t seen since 1984. He is starting over for a third time in Montana, and this time he hopes it sticks. “Prison,” he said, “took me away from me.”
Since he left prison, he said he is like a kid in a candy shop. “Every day is a new adventure,” Allen said, and he’s going to make the most of them. “Society makes it easy for corrections in any state to do what they want because no one cares… If this is the only shot I have at telling anybody that will listen to what’s going on, then I am going to take it.”
Allen works in a Goodwill warehouse. He loves his job, and it allows him to give back after the 37 years spent behind bars. In October 2018, his ankle bracelet was removed just in time for a Halloween costume party at the store.
Allen squeezed a vampire onesie over his tattooed muscular frame, covering the prison ink and scars that scrawl up his skin. A shock of black curly hair ran straight past his neck and sat naturally between his shoulder blades as he made wooden boats for the kids at the party.
Return of the Buffalo
The Blackfeet Nation is reasserting its identity on the Rocky Mountain Front.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY
LOUISE JOHNS | PHOTO EDITOR
A JOURNEY of redemption and restoration is rising out of the foothills of northern Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Tribal nations in the U.S. and Canada see a connection between the health of their communities and the restoration of buffalo, and have been working to bring herds back to both tribal and public land. The Blackfeet Nation is leading the way.
The Iinnii, the Blackfeet word for buffalo, is a symbol of life, health and well-being for Native Americans. The animal is commonly referred to in English as the ‘buffalo’ amongst Native American tribes rather than the more scientific word, ‘bison.’ For centuries before westward expansion, buffalo roamed much of North America, and they were the lifeblood of the Blackfeet. The Blackfeet used every part of the buffalo in spiritual ceremonies, for food, clothing, lodging, tools and as part of their economy.
By the late 1800s, colonialism had annihilated both Native Americans and the buffalo. Estimates vary, but research suggests there were between two and 18 million Native American people and 20 to 40 million buffalo in North America in 1492. Four hundred years later, approximately 237,000 Native Americans and roughly 1,000 buffalo remained.
At the turn of the 19th century a dwindling herd remained east of the Rocky Mountain Front, along the plains and across some of what is now the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana.The survivors of the herd were captured by two Pend d’Oreille tribal members and taken to the Flathead Indian Reservation. Those animals were conserved as part of the Pablo-Allard herd, which became one of the last remaining genetically pure buffalo herds in the country. In 1908, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the federal government bought buffalo from the herd to start the National Bison Range. Another group was taken to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.
In 1972, the Blackfeet Nation established a small “cultural herd” on its reservation with buffalo from Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Initially, the tribe struggled with management challenges, most of which have been resolved, and the herd has grown to more than 600 animals managed on Blackfeet tribal lands. In 2016, 90 genetically pure buffalo, original descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd, were brought from Elk Island National Park and returned to the Blackfeet Reservation with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society. It was a significant step in establishing a free-ranging herd across the northern plains.
The return of the buffalo accompanies a resurgence of Native American identity: language, religion, art, food and spiritual practices that are deeply connected to nature. It has been repressed for centuries in the name of progress and opportunity for wealth and development in the U.S.
“We’re bringing back a big part of our culture. And the people are realizing that we’re one and the same with buffalo,” says Ervin Carlson, who is president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council and oversees the Blackfeet herd. “Our lives are the same.”
In 2009, the Blackfoot Confederacy, made up of the Kainai, Siksiika, Piikani and Amskapipikuni Blackfeet tribes on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society to launch the Iinnii Initiative. It’s a large-scale, grassroots restoration effort between tribes, environmental organizations and government agencies on both sides of the border to restore free-ranging wild buffalo to 6.3 million acres of the Great Plains ecosystem.“We began to push for the concept of ecological restoration,” said Keith Aune, former director of the bison conservation program for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
For the tribes, this meant going beyond a commercial or cultural herd and looking further into the ecological benefits of buffalo and its role in human cultures. He says that buffalo give the Blackfeet a reason to reach beyond the borders of the reservation, to bring people in and show them the tribe’s ways. The Blackfeet now invite school groups, universities and others to see the herd and learn about their relationship to the buffalo. “That’s why we say buffalo can unite us rather than divide us,” said Aune.
The vision is to create a wild buffalo herd that sprawls across tribal and public lands on the Rocky Mountain Front, from Heart Butte in the U.S. to Banff National Park in southwestern Alberta. This conservation initiative is grounded in understanding that buffalo, like grizzly bears, elk and many other wide-ranging species, are not contained by anthropogenic boundaries. Rather, their ecological recovery hinges on having enough room to roam on contiguous landscapes between tribal, public and some private land. Historically, Native American communities did not ascribe to hard boundaries either; they moved with nature, following the buffalo.
This vision is not without challenges. There is political and social resistance, largely from state and federal agencies. Some ranchers, farmers and agriculturalists, and the agencies and organizations that represent them, view buffalo as competition for an important resource: grass. Buffalo also can be hard on fences, which can create problems when the animals show up in places where they are not wanted. And buffalo transferred from Yellowstone National Park to build other herds are accompanied by fears of brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to abort their calves, even when the buffalo are deemed disease free.
The future of buffalo hinges on an agreement that will address these factors, all of which involve an undercurrent of racism against Native Americans. So when it comes to bringing buffalo back to tribal lands for tribal management, in some places there is unexplained resistance. “There’s still a discrimination thing that goes on, you know, with Indians and buffalo,” said Carlson. “And you hate to think it’s that way in this day and age, but it is there.”
Regardless, the Blackfoot Confederacy is staying true to its dream of a wild, free-ranging buffalo population. The animal provides economic promise from tourism and the sale of buffalo meat. Ecologically, the buffalo is a keystone species, and can help bring the land to life by fertilizing soil, creating biodiversity in grasses, providing food for apex predators and enabling other native species like birds, insects and ungulates to thrive. More importantly, the return of the Iinnii provides hope for the youth and a way for tribes to teach their young about their heritage, one that is rooted in respect and reverence for the natural world.
Life is harder than combat
Veterans battle suicide epidemic the way they fought insurgents in Iraq: together
Story by Ryan OConnell | Staff Writer
EVERY JULY, when the weather is warm and perfect for hiking, Ashley Slack walks across the close-clipped lawn of the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery and places a green can of Moose Drool beer in front of her brother’s gray marble gravestone:
BRANDON K LCPL US MARINE CORPS IRAQ JAN 2 1984 OCT 22 2013
“It’s difficult,” Ashley said. “He was my only brother. It’s hard not having him as an adult, drink a beer, swap stories about service.”
The Slacks are the quintessential Marine Corps family, and Brandon and Ashley were initiated early. Their parents met while stationed in Virginia before being transferred to Japan and then Hawaii. Their Marine father, who served 10 years, would punish Brandon’s transgressions by making him dig holes and fill them up again. Their Marine mother, who served 13 years, once had Ashley, 4 or 5 years old at the time, perform a finger-counting song to a platoon she’d just chewed out so the Marines could sing it back.
So it couldn’t have surprised anyone when Brandon enlisted on New Year’s Eve 2002, just two days before his nineteenth birthday. He served with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment as a radio operator in Fallujah and Ramadi. Ashley followed in Brandon’s footsteps, arriving at Parris Island for boot camp the day after her nineteenth birthday in February 2006. Brandon left the service a year later, and Ashley followed suit in May 2011.
Less than three years later, Ashley buried her brother.
Now, Ashley interns at the University of Montana’s Veterans Education and Transition Services (VETS) office as she studies for a bachelor’s in social work. She’s quick to laugh and prefers, “What the fuck do you want?” to “How can I help you?” Her coworkers are thrown off if she isn’t wearing her black ball cap or a beanie. Plastic army men peek around her computer, just like they did in Brandon’s apartment.
She’s at VETS because she wants to help veterans transition into the civilian world by catching them before they get lost in the system. Her year is measured in memorials and anniversaries of veterans who have, like Brandon, taken their own lives.
According to Veterans Affairs’ National Suicide Data Report 2005-2015, more than 20 current and former military members die by suicide each and every day; more than 80 percent of these deaths are veterans. The female veteran suicide rate has become especially alarming, having increased 62.4 percent from 2001 to 2014, twice as fast as the rate for males.
Montana has one of the highest rates in the country, according to a January 2018 analysis by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Office of Epidemiology and Scientific Support. Montana’s veteran suicide rate is 70.4 deaths per 100,000, more than twice the nonveteran suicide rate of 29 percent. Veterans comprise 13 percent of people who are 18 years and older, but account for 20 percent of suicides.
Why the suicide epidemic among veterans? According to suicide researcher Martha Bruce, from the department of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, “Military service increases the risk of [physical and psychological] injury, which in turn increases the risk of long-term disability, which serves to increase the risk of depression, joblessness and social isolation — all of which together increase suicide risk.”
Chris Cataldo, a veteran friend of Brandon’s who fought in Iraq, is less clinical than Bruce. “Life,” he said, “is much harder than combat.”
It’s not as if the U.S. government is ignoring service members’ suffering. Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado, introduced a bill in December 2017 directing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to emphasize veteran-to-veteran counselors, including hiring additional women to work with female veterans. The bill passed the House and is currently in the Senate being reviewed by the Committee On Veterans’ Affairs.
Veterans also are referred to the Veterans Crisis Line through white business cards with the organization’s phone number, but the service is not immune to criticism. Though the crisis line has answered more than 3.5 million calls and 92,000 text message requests, according to its website, a February 2016 report found that during the previous November, 30 percent of calls went unanswered. A third crisis line center was opened in Topeka, Kansas, in June 2018. A bill, currently in the Senate, proposes conducting a five-year study on the effectiveness of the Veterans Crisis Line.
In January 2018, President Trump ordered the creation of a Joint Action Plan to provide service members transitioning out of the military with mental health treatment and suicide prevention resources. Surveys and programs have been created through the Joint Action Plan, and while some have gone into action, many won’t be in full effect until 2020.
The biggest problem is that 70 percent of veterans who die by suicide are not engaged in VA health services, according to a 2016 VA study. Many veterans live in rural areas without access to health services, and some have bad VA experiences: long appointment waits, impersonal staff, nonveteran counselors and red tape.
While the VA hustles to prove itself capable, more and more veterans are taking ownership of the suicide crisis and building their own support networks, both online and in person.
Veterans, it seems, can give each other what government agencies and tangled policies cannot: camaraderie and understanding. “We’re all enjoying the suck together,” Ashley said.
In late September, Missoula VFW Post 209 hosted a gathering of community members and veterans to raise awareness of veteran PTSD and suicide. Men and women chatted at tall tables and sipped Bud Light and mixed drinks, occasionally glancing at the late-season baseball game on TV.
Three service dogs lay under the tables. John “Mac” McAfee wore his brown leather leash over his right shoulder, like a makeshift bandolier. He calls it “an electrical hookup” to Fury, a Belgian Malinois with short, oak-tree brown fur.
Fury leaped up, stretched her thin frame and put her front paws on Mac’s chest. He bent down and lowered his head to nuzzle her. It looked as if she was giving him a hug.
Mac was part of an 18-man reconnaissance platoon in Iraq. In three months, he said, he was blown up three times. A mortar strike flung him head-first against a wall. A rocket-propelled grenade detonated on the front of his truck. Another mortar deposited shrapnel in his back, a souvenir that still makes airport metal detectors beep. Each time, he said, he got up and finished the mission.
Mac and Fury were paired by the nonprofit group Leashes of Valor in February 2018. Leashes of Valor was started in 2017 by three veterans—Danique Masingill, Matt Masingill and Jason Hagg—to provide veterans with service dogs. These highly trained canine companions mitigate the symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, which in turn can reduce the incidence of veteran suicides.
The nonprofit flies veterans out to Virginia to introduce them to their service dog and provide training. The veteran works with the dog for 16 days straight, six to eight hours a day, starting with bonding and learning the dog’s command cues. The conditioning intensifies as the days progress. As part of the training, Mac and Fury went to a restaurant. Mac sat with his back to other diners, while Fury faced them. It was tough. “It’s okay to walk out,” he said. “But you always have to go back in.”
Hagg, CEO of Leashes of Valor, was there when Mac and Fury met. Hagg served in the Marine Corps as part of an infantry battalion, eventually rising to the rank of Captain. It was after his first tour in Iraq that he noticed something was off. His first flashback happened the day he got home, in a restaurant with his wife and child. He didn’t notice the waitress had come up behind him. All he remembers is flipping the table, then, nothing.
Hagg estimates he’s experienced about a thousand flashbacks since. He deployed to Iraq for a second time and to Afghanistan after that. He sustained traumatic brain injuries from explosives and was wounded by machine gun fire before coming home for good. He tried prescribed medication, physical therapy, talk therapy, group therapy, hyperbaric chambers, acupuncture, equine therapy, and even “fucking drawing” to relieve the physical and mental pain.
In 2012, Hagg applied for a service dog and that September, he met Axel, the German Shepherd who sat beside him at the VFW, at the perfect height for a pat between his black ears. Hagg credits Axel with saving his life and he has helped put leashes into the hands of 300 veterans. Only one has died by suicide. “I’ve put too many people in the ground just from the war at home, and I’m not going to let it happen anymore,” he said.
The University of Montana’s VETS office is a converted home above two single-car garages, one marked with a metal placard reading, ”Reserved Combat Wounded,” and styled with a Purple Heart portrait of George Washington instead of a wheelchair. A flat-screen TV above the reception desk scrolls events and programs: National Guard, Troops to Teachers, Veteran Fire Corps, group meditation, an outdoor gear sale, suicide prevention. Another TV is hooked to a PS3—Fallout: New Vegas is in the tray, Madden ’09 and NCAA ‘09 compete on the sidelines. Red gun locks packaged with signs-of-suicide cards are free and easy to grab. There’s a long fabric couch, computers and the coffee is always on.
The VETS office provides a space for veterans who feel disconnected on campus. Approximately 230,000 service members leave the military each year and transition into civilian life, which is like starting all over again, said VETS Director Shawn Grove. The little things are frustrating. Six-dollar haircuts are now $15. Dentist and doctor appointments, which had been scheduled by the military, are now veterans’ responsibilities. Only 4.5 percent of enlisted men and women have a university degree, according to a 2008 Department of Defense survey.
Finding civilian employment is more difficult than expected. Sixty-five to 80 percent of service members who left the military between 2014 and 2016 did not have employment lined up, according to The State of the American Veteran: The Los Angeles County Veterans Study. Translating military skills and experiences to potential employers takes some work. When the interviewer asks, “So, what did you do in the military?,” saying, “I took care of my soldiers,” doesn’t seem relevant. Persistence, reliability, conscientiousness and attention to detail are hard to market, according to academic researcher Anna Zogas, author of a report called U.S. Military Veterans’ Difficult Transitions Back to Civilian Life and the VA’s Response.
Once hired, many veterans begin at the bottom of the company hierarchy. Cataldo, a friend of Brandon’s and one of the administrators of the Marines of Fallujah Facebook group, describes it as peaking in your career at 19. You go from “strapping on a flak jacket and being the baddest motherfucker on the street corner,” to donning a vest and sweeping a storefront, he said.
Naomi Schware is a Jewish American who joined the Israeli Defense Force in 2011. She became a sniper and engaged terrorists daily. “I was really good at it,” she said.
But after leaving active duty, she felt a loss of purpose. Two years later, she became interested in visual storytelling. Now, she serves in the reserves, but typically looks through the lens of a camera rather than optics on a rifle. She uses a Canon 5D Mark iii or a Sony a7 iii as a documentary filmmaker and mountain climber.
Females make up 16 percent of enlisted personnel and 18 percent of officers in the U.S. military, according to a 2018 Council on Foreign Relations study. The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) works “to support, connect and advocate for service women past, present and future.” SWAN distributed a mental wellness survey in 2017, and 60 percent of respondents reported that “military service had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.”
Trauma isn’t always afflicted by the enemy. Almost half of women in the military reported “some aspect of bias, harassment or assault during military service had negatively impacted their mental health.” Recent legislation has invalidated “the good soldier” defense in sexual assault cases, so a service member can no longer use his or her military accomplishments and honorable services to defend their character. Legislation also has attempted to empower military sexual assault victims by quickening the reporting and discipline process.
But progress is slow, and female veterans are trying to fill in the gaps. Valkyries of Valor describes itself as, “an anywhere, anytime meetup group with no geographic restrictions.” Started in 2017, the organization targets women from all uniformed services, including first responders. “There are few women veterans, so we need to create meetup opportunities,” said Danique Masingill, CEO of Valkyries of Valor as well as President of Leashes of Valor. The Valkyries are known for hiking, camping and wilderness outings, but yoga or coffee breaks count, too, as long as no one bitches. “You meet people who are as messed up as you,” said Schware. “It’s great.” Schware has benefited most from wilderness therapy, and she introduces it to other female veterans. Always active, she has embraced the wilderness and lives in Colorado, in a tent, 16 miles from Alma, the nearest town, where there is no cell service. “The declutter of material things,” she said, “declutters the mind.”
Brandon was tall, over six feet, and ripped. When he showed off a new chest tattoo, Ashley said, he didn’t lift up his shirt, he took it off. “My brother knew he was beautiful, and he would tell you he knew he was beautiful.” He would take pictures of himself or his weapons, helmet, packs — “gear porn” she calls it — and post them online.
Brandon would call Ashley just to scream, “Trogdor!” into the phone. “Trogdor” is a dragon with wings and one beefy arm from the online cartoon site Homestar Runner, and is known for “burninating” the countryside. Brandon named one of his rifles Trogdor.
He enjoyed hiking and taking photos along the Waterworks Hill trails in Missoula. In one photo, taken with a timer, his arms are spread, like DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic.
But after leaving the Marines, Brandon, like so many veterans, struggled to adapt to civilian life. When he stayed at his mother’s, he would wake up at night and clear the house with a loaded pistol. He battled homelessness. When his daughter was born, he regained a sense of purpose. He saved some money, and rented an apartment with an extra room for her to stay when she visited. He tried. He struggled. He avoided night terrors by slamming five-hour energy drinks and dipping tobacco.
Ashley said Brandon was diagnosed with PTSD after he left the Marines, and eventually with paranoid schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. She called the Veterans Crisis Line in 2012, concerned about her brother. The responder said, unless the individual calling is the person suffering, nothing could be done. The only option was to have Brandon committed or, if Ashley felt unsafe, calling the police and having him arrested.
In October 2013, Brandon and his mother were on the University of Montana’s campus, where she worked. She recently had surgery and walked in a plastic boot and with crutches. Brandon was in a rough spot. He had been having bad nights—a recurring nightmare about a woman in a red dress—and it had been a bad day. His phone had fallen in the sink while he shaved, and he was out of medical marijuana and money.
Absent-minded students skittered across campus. As Brandon and his mother navigated their way through the crowds, he became more and more irritated each time her crutches were kicked or a door was closed in her face. When a student cut them both off, Brandon shouted at him, and cursed the student’s disrespect. His mother had to talk Brandon down before he hurt the student. He went home to his apartment, his thoughts and his pistol.
Ashley was in Georgia. She got the phone call at 1:30 a.m.
“Are you feeling suicidal?” Anton Johnson said the words naturally, directly. He asks that question regularly as a counselor at the Missoula VA office. Just four words greatly reduces the likelihood of death by suicide, he said.
The reasons veterans choose suicide are the same as the general population’s, said Johnson, only more. Finances, family strain, divorce, deaths of people and pets, unemployment, loss of purpose. The difference is that veterans often have ready access to firearms, they typically also carry a higher trauma load, and after deploying to a war zone, they may have an intimate relationship with death. The VA speculates that up to 20 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. Twelve percent of Gulf War veterans and up to 30 percent of Vietnam veterans are affected. At some point, disorder becomes routine.
The Army’s recruiting slogan from 2001 to 2006 was “An Army of One.” The individualistic phrase was dropped in favor of the more encompassing “Army Strong,” but its echo remains. “That’s the worst mentality to have when it comes to mental health issues,” Johnson said.
“In Montana, our [suicide] rates are atrocious,” said Tina Barrett, executive director of the Tamarack Grief Resource Center and senior consultant for the National Military Suicide Prevention Seminar. Barrett said if a person said they aren’t suicidal, or brushes the question off, it’s okay to ask again and explain why a person in their position may feel suicidal.
Asking can be frightening, and the question’s response may be overwhelming. Barrett said to stay with the person, to listen and begin connecting him or her to people and programs experienced in suicide counseling.
“We can’t be complacent,” she said.
Marine Lance Corporal Brandon Slack’s funeral was live streamed by the Marines of Fallujah Facebook group, where Brandon had been one of four administrators. The other three traveled to Montana from California, Oklahoma and New York. Only one had ever met Brandon, but their boots had stamped the same Fallujah sand. They’d all supported one another and become friends through chat windows and phone calls. “Nothing had to be said to know we were going to Montana,” Cataldo said, who served as a Marine infantryman.
It was late October in Montana, and the day of the funeral was cold. Cataldo said the mountain scenery wasn’t there that day and neither was the big sky for which Montana is known. The day before, yes, and the day after, but that day, October 29, “The world was taking a minute and being somber.”
Brandon’s funeral was the moment the Marines of Fallujah Facebook group went from publicbanter and private messaging to a mission of outreach. Admins have posted their phone numbers and encourage their comrades to call. Public memorials for Marines lost to suicide are posted. “We just want people to stop dying after leaving the battlefield,” Cataldo said.
The summer after Brandon’s funeral, in 2014, Ashley started SlackTacular. During the now annual July event, many family members and friends of Brandon’s come to Montana. Ashley places a can of Moose Drool at his gravestone, and everyone goes river rafting and drives deep into the woods near Florence to shoot Trogdor and Brandon’s other weapons. Then they hike the Waterworks Hill trails, where his ashes were scattered, and take a group picture, arms spread, in the exact spot where Brandon froze his vibrant eyes and perfect teeth, the warm sun at his back — king of the world.
The Veterans Crisis Line is a free, anonymous and confidential service available to anyone, even if you aren’t registered with Veterans Affairs or enrolled in Veterans Affairs health care. Visit www.veteranscrisisline.net or call 800-273-8255.
Dealing with drift
Montana’s organic farmers face limited options for compensation
Story by Jenny Gessaman | Staff Writer Photos by Gabby Friedlander | Staff Photographer
ON A BREEZY May day in 2008, Daryl and Linda Lassila were doing what they do most spring days: yard work. The Lassilas are farmers, so once the snow has disappeared and the soil begins to warm, they are almost always outside getting their land prepped for planting.
Daryl can’t remember exactly what they were doing that day—it was 10 years ago, after all—but as he tries to conjure the details, he suspects they were probably mowing the lawn, or perhaps building their garage. A decade later, the white exterior is covered in gray metal, and the garage door still rides up and down.
There is one thing Daryl is certain of: a small, single-seat airplane flew overhead, its overpowered engine howling across the sky. “It was on what I would call a nice, breezy day. They call it a calm day, the applicators,” he said. There was a wind, one too weak for dust devils but strong enough to bend the grass.
“Applicators” is short for aerial applicators, pilots who use specially equipped planes to spray insecticides and herbicides, on large swaths of farmland. And the plane that flew by was unmistakable. “That guy has really sharp paint jobs,” Daryl said. “It’s not just a generic airplane.”
The Lassilas gazed skyward, following the plane as it beelined toward a neighbor’s field. Why was a crop duster arcing over their acres? They didn’t hire spray pilots. They couldn’t: Their home is surrounded by organic farmland, and organic certification bans most pesticides. So what was going on?
Daryl jumped onto his ATV and roared after the speeding plane. His fears confirmed, he pulled over to avoid the plane’s blanket of toxic broadleaf herbicide. He snapped a few pictures with his phone and raced home to grab his truck.
He caught up with the plane as it landed, and the pilot climbed out to a man demanding answers. “The pilot blamed it on his planes going so fast, they went over our field,” Daryl said dryly.
The pilot followed his excuse with a proposal to pay for his misdeed. The gesture was remarkable for two reasons: it was an admission of guilt, and chemical contamination of organic cropland can cost thousands of dollars. The offer was conditional, however. Daryl couldn’t report the pilot, or how the herbicide had drifted straight into an organic field of Austrian winter pea.
Montana’s farmers have a gambling problem. Their profession is a yearlong game of chance that pits man against weather, a game where late rain, high temperatures and heavy hail are all losing hands. Low-volume, high-priced organic crops raise the stakes even higher, stakes farmers are almost guaranteed to lose in the game of drift.
The drift of chemicals from non organic neighbors decreases profits, reduces the amount of arable land and can even damage social standing for organic farmers trying to provide consumers with chemical-free crops and foodstuffs. It also triggers an onerous process to retain organic certification and receive compensation for what amounts to pollution of their commercial crops.
For four generations, the Lassilas have farmed wheat and barley around a winding coulée 10 miles northwest of Great Falls. The shift from chemical farming was gradual and started when Daryl returned home. His graduation from Great Falls High School had kicked off years of “seeing the country,” an experience Daryl said confirmed his desire to return to the farm and continue the family tradition.
He was still working under his dad, Robert, when he suggested organic. Robert gave him two acres of farmland to experiment with, but Daryl had bigger plans. “Being as I was at that time managing the farm, I took 100 acres and flew with it,” Daryl laughed. Organic worked, and Daryl transitioned 100 acres each year until the farm was fully organic in 2013.
Organic is more than a name, it’s a label representing a rigorous and regulated set of farming practices. Authorized by Congress in 1990, the National Organic Program (NOP) spent 12 years building its organic requirements and was only considered fully operational in 2002. NOP standards ban most synthetic substances, including the majority of pesticides, and provide protocols for when organic crops are exposed.
The first step is for farmers to “immediately notify the certifying agent.” Anyone interested in defining that phrase has to dig further into the rules. The national program is administered at the state level, leaving farmers with three sets of laws to dig through: federal law, state law and state administrative law. The last refers to the laws defining state agencies.
A “certifying agent” isn’t actually a person, but an organization. A list of 80 national and international agents, including the Montana Department of Agriculture, is available from the USDA. The logistics of notification aren’t as clear. Federal law requires organic farmers to report drift, but doesn’t say how. The Montana Organic Policy Manual reads the same. The state’s pesticide division website offers some guidance. It says anyone “suffering…from the improper use of pesticides” should report by telephone, email or mail.
Pesticide drift is a national problem. Although comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, Kevin Bradley, University of Missouri professor and plant pathologist, estimated 3.6 million acres of soybean were damaged by Dicamba drift in the first 10 months of 2017. He only reached this number by repeatedly requesting information from 25 states’ departments of agriculture.
Drifting Dicamba, a hard-to-control herbicide, has made national headlines for the last several years. Weeds have developed resistance to common
herbicides, and Monsanto has created genetically modified crops that can tolerate Dicamba, a benzoic acid herbicide that controls annual and perennial broadleaf weeds in grain crops and grasslands. It is particularly volatile, and doesn’t stay where it’s put.
In the Southeast, Dicamba drift is damaging soybean and cotton crops. By August 2016, Missouri farmers had reported more than 42,000 acres of crop damage, according to an EPA advisory. The Wall Street Journal reported Missouri and Arkansas combined were estimating 200,000 acres had been contaminated.
Drift has even escalated to violence. In December 2017, Missouri farmer Allan Curtis Jones was found guilty of shooting neighboring farmer Mike Wallace over a Dicamba drift. A year earlier, the two had met along the Arkansas-Missouri border to work out a dispute. Wallace had filed a report claiming Dicamba drift was coming from the farm where Jones worked. The conversation became heated and 28-year-old Jones shot 55-year-old Wallace, after Wallace allegedly grabbed his arm.
The problem is fatal for more than crops and farmers. Herbicides like Dicamba are designed to kill unwanted vegetation, meaning they can affect wide ranges of plants. Last September, National Public Radio highlighted the Dicamba damage to centuries-old cypress trees in Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee.
The chemical also kills milkweed, the only plant monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on. Roughly 70 million acres of the insects’ migratory habitat in the South and Midwest will be hit by Dicamba drift by 2019, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Montana’s Pesticide Compliance Program is the Department of Agriculture division responsible for keeping pesticide use in line with the law.PesticideCompliance Program Manager Leonard Berry explained that all applicators are required to follow federal “label law,” meaning products must be applied according to directions listed on their labels. Because most labels say “do not drift,” drifting those products is unlawful.
Drifting your neighbor may result in fines ranging in the hundreds of dollars, similar to traffic tickets. In egregious cases, malicious pilots can have their spraying licenses revoked, but Berry said it has never happened.
Despite the rules, Berry added, drifting is inevitable. “Every single pesticide application drifts, whether it’s an eighth of an inch, an eighth of a mile or eight miles,” he said. This means Berry’s department needs one more piece to open a “drift incident” case: the affected neighbor. “If your neighbor says it’s not drift, it’s not drift,” he said.
Daryl said it definitely was drift. He turned down the pilot’s offer and reported the infraction, setting Berry’s staff in motion. Their investigations are based on vegetation and soil samples sent to the Department of Agriculture’s Bozeman laboratory to confirm whether drift occurred. The process also includes interviewing all farmers involved, and determining wind direction and speed on the day in question.
In Daryl’s case, the results were clear. The pilot hired by the Lassilas’ neighbor had drifted. The pesticide program made its determination and ended its investigation. But how much damage had been done, and wasn’t Daryl owed compensation? For those questions, he had to turn elsewhere in the Department of Agriculture, to the Montana Organic Program (MOP).
MOP’s investigations focus on organic integrity and specify what a farmer must do to maintain organic certification. In the Lassila case, Daryl was told 40 acres had been affected. He could not grow organic on those acres for three years and had to submit new organic farming plans reflecting that change.
Neither the pesticide program nor the organic program were obligated to assist or compensate Daryl for economic losses resulting from the applicator’s actions. That was up to him. He could walk away, he could negotiate with the applicator and the neighbors, or he could sue.
Until April 2018, Bob Quinn managed a family farm that started in 1920. He spent four decades building an organic operation focused on small grains, one best known for the ancient wheat Quinn trademarked, KAMUT.
In the late 1990s, the Quinn Farm and Ranch was drifted. The air was still, the weather was quiet and the pesticide was volatile. The pilot hired by Quinn’s neighbor dropped a load of Dicamba on a target a half-mile away. Accuracy didn’t matter, though. “The herbicide acted as a cloud and drifted over half a mile,” Quinn said. “It was at a time when the lentils were blooming, so it sterilized the crop and I didn’t get a single pod.”
Quinn reported the 80-acre drift, and the state tested the crop. The results revealed trace amounts of herbicide, but amounts well below the organic limit. The field kept its organic certification, which proved useless when the sterilized plants never produced a crop for Quinn to sell.
He estimates the drift cost him roughly $16,000. “That was probably 30 percent of my expected profit for that year,” Quinn said.
There was, however, one way to get the money back. Trace amounts of herbicide meant Quinn could sue his neighbor. But he couldn’t. Quinn’s reasoning was cautious and deliberate. The loss was big for Quinn Farm and Ranch. There was also the principle of the thing. No one was at fault, and there was no malicious intent. “I wouldn’t dream of suing my neighbor,” he said. “We work together, we live together, we exchange food and help each other from time to time.”
The idea that someone like Quinn, wronged through no fault of his own, is left to absorb financial losses caused by someone else’s actions is not an idea Neva Hassanein likes.
“I don’t think the state’s taking this sufficiently seriously,” the University of Montana professor of environmental studies said. “These are people’s livelihoods at stake.”
Hassanein’s research on contemporary food systems has familiarized her with the aftermath of pesticide drift. The laws, she said, are designed to guide state officials and offer little assurance for organic farmers. Growers are left on their own when it comes to restitution and she worries the whole process is just “passing the buck.”
“[The farmers] are often forced into courts for the loss of their crops, or even the potential threats to their health,” she said. “It puts this tremendous onus on the victim basically.”
The fact upsets Hassanein, especially considering the high stakes of organic farming. A crop exposed to pesticides cannot be labeled organic, meaning any sale would earn a lower, nonorganic price. This may not cover the increased cost associated with raising organic products, leaving farmers in the red.
Some organic farmers choose not to sell a drifted crop at all. Hassanein knows several Montana farmers who adopted organic not just as a business practice, but also as a philosophy. Morally, she said, they cannot justify selling a pesticide-exposed crop to their customers.
That leaves one uncomfortable option. “Your only recourse is to try and sue your neighbor,” Hassanein said. “And that does not make for good neighborly relations.”
Daryl was now a solitary but determined player in a high-stakes game. With records splayed out and a copy of NOP law at hand, Daryl calculated the cost of the pilot’s mistake. “That was a pain in your butt there, alright,” he said. “I figured it out, and I was very lenient for him.”
Lenient because Daryl did not charge for the hours he spent calculating. Crop loss is more than lost sales. It includes lost “crop inputs,” including the expenses involved in growing a crop, time spent farming and purchasing seed.
Organic farmers also have to consider the costs of adhering to federal NOP laws. Laws like Section 7 CFR § 205.202 (b), which bans the application of prohibited substances on farmland for three years prior to growing organic crops. This meant the organic Lassila farm, drifted with a broadleaf herbicide prohibited by NOP, lost use of its drift-hit land for three years.
Daryl tallied the missing profits year by year, coming to a total between $10,000 and $20,000. “It was a reasonable amount, in his pocketbook, at least,” Daryl said. “It cost me a little bit more.”
Daryl just wanted to break even. He repeatedly presented the total bill to the pilot over the next six months, to no avail, and was eventually forced to pull another player into the game: the neighbors who had hired the pilot to spray their land. Daryl grabbed his numbers and went next door. “They were kind of in shock,” Daryl said. The pilot had assured Daryl’s neighbors that everything had been settled. “They were pretty quiet when we passed [them] the bill,” he said.
When the neighbors also refused to pay, the Lassilas played the only card they had left. Robert, Daryl’s 70-year-old father, drafted a lawsuit naming the pilot and the neighbors. The matter never went to court, and when payment came 12 to 16 months after the drift, it came with a steep price.
“I was all but threatened,” Daryl said. “I was shunned by all the neighbors.”
It came in small gestures, actions amplified by the empty space of rural Montana. No one waved as the Lassilas passed. Trucks never stopped on the two-track gravel roads, never rolled down windows for a conversation about the harvest and the weather. “There wasn’t an empty chair when you went to farm meetings,” Daryl said.
But the Lassilas had been growing grain for four generations, putting roots in the community as they put roots in the ground. They hoped every local farmer remembered their career is a gamble, that every neighbor understood the Lassilas were trying to make ends meet.
No one did, and the family isn’t bitter about it. You see it in any neighborhood, they say, and the ice began to melt after a year. Things went back to normal, more or less.
Now, the Lassilas add, the farm is proactive, hedging its bets for the next round. Daryl makes sure neighbors and local applicators know Lassila crops are organic. A sign just off the main road declares, “ORGANIC FARMING NO SPRAY ZONE.”
Nevertheless, the Lassilas are resigned to a next round. That’s something both Daryl and Berry agree on. Drift is inevitable. The only question is, who should pay for it?