By Laura Mushrush
Parsons, Kansas — A collision of visions — that is what’s on the horizon for all of rural America according to northwestern Montana logger Bruce Vincent at the 2014 Kansas Soybean Expo.
And he should know.
A mandated recovery project by the federal Endangered Species Act that sought to rebuild the grizzly bear population near his town of Libby, Mont., may drive out the town’s population.
Vincent and others, who supported rebuilding the grizzly population, saw potential problems with the projects’s reckless plans.
Plans that involved non-tested experiments of planting grizzly bear embryos in black bears to be born in uncontrolled environments. The two species are natural enemies and the risk of a surrogate black bear killing her grizzly offspring was high.
There was also the lingering question of citizen safety with an increased grizzly population.
When leaders of the project were questioned on their methods they told the community point blank, “We’re not here to take a public opinion — we’re here to tell you how we’re going to do it. “
Surrounding communities band together.
“We raised a ruckus designed to get attention from Washington D.C. We stood up together for a common cry of common sense,” he said. “We ran head first into someone’s vision for the future, and it didn’t include us.
“We didn’t want to do away with the plan, we wanted to be in it.”
The community members were noticed and helped make changes. They led the project to specialists and universities to find the science behind what needed to happen.
“We formed the first in the world community involvent team for a predator,” he said.
A community team whose main concerns were raising bears and raising families. Grizzly numbers began to climb.
“We could coexist quite nicely,” he added. “Grizzlies don’t eat trees. They eat berries, roots and shrubs — things that grow up when the tree crop has been removed.”
“There was plenty of room for us and the bears.”
Similar to rangeland in the Flint Hills of Kansas being burned in the spring to clear away dead forage and bring back new growth, logging thins dense timber areas and promotes new growth. This is also essential for wildfire control.
But now his family’s third generation business is dead.
No longer does it employ 65 of the town’s 2,800 people. A little over two percent may not seem like a big deal, but it’s astronomical when that two percent drives the remaining population’s economy.
The town was told to rely on tourism to stay alive. A recent estimation from the University of Montana said the small town of Libby would have to bring in $100 million dollars in tourism to continue at its former pace. That is assuming 1 million tourists would come to visit each year, each spending $100.
Vincent shuddered as he explained the environmental impact that amount of tourism would have on his community. The type of environmental impact that could never work with a grizzly’s ecosystem.
And now his former logging machinery has been transformed into fire fighting equipment. It sits, waiting for the tragic day when an uncontained wildfire rips through the dead timber fueled region, destroying everything in it’s path — including the grizzly bears.
All this because a lawsuit was won, stating the U.S. Forest Service could no longer use logging for its forest management plan, claiming it would hurt the grizzly bear population.
All this because a law was passed without consideration of the community’s destined to become collateral damage.
Life as Vincent knew it in his small mountain town has come to a screeching halt.
The timberman now feels a sense of responsibility to share his experiences with others in rural America — to protect them from being protected to death.
“Timber was not unique. It was simply first.”
“America decides they want to protect rural America, but they have no idea what we do. They fall in love with what they think we do,” echoed his words to a room full of people who make their living from the land — just like he used to.
“Their vision to protect the last best place has no thought to protect the people of the last best place.”
According to Vincent, rural citizens must become activists for rural America.
When his community had finally gained enough attention from Washington D.C., a representative was sent there to meet with Vincent.
“I asked him the question that was on the lips of everyone in town, ‘Why the heavy hand of control from 3,000 miles away? Why don’t you come work with us?’”
His answer: The federal government was mandated by the Endangered Species Act due to historic records of the grizzly population in the territory.
And the act wouldn’t attack higher populated areas due to public outcry.
This response sent Vincent two clear messages:
1. Rural America is seen as politically impotent.
2. When it comes to protecting the rural environment, rural population is seen as disposable.
“It’s not conservation, it’s fear.”
Vincent encouraged attendants to put themselves in the public’s shoes. To think about press they’ve seen where farmers and ranchers are portrayed as chemical dumping, animal abusing monsters. Then compare that to press showing, “A man with the American flag in one hand and a bald eagle in the other, saying all he wants is clean water for his kids.”
He asked them if given those two scenarios, which one they would choose.
“The American public is making the right choice, but they’ve been given the wrong things to choose from,” Vincent explained.
“If we want to save rural America, we will address the real enemy, and that is ignorance.”
He stressed the importance to advocate, encouraging attendants to step up and lead, because ultimately it is the producers problem.
“Democracy does work, but it’s not a spectator’s sport,” he continued, “When people lead, others follow.”
He stressed the impact a producer could make with just an hour a week dedicated to saving their future.
“Part of business means fighting for business,” Vincent said.
Whether it be visiting schools and community events to speak, sharing their story through social media and the internet, or simply stepping out of their comfort zone and speaking to a stranger at the grocery store.
“The easiest way to address public ignorance is to tell them the truth,” he said. “But we know we’re not perfect and that sometimes compromises your passion when you get behind a microphone or you want to write a letter.
“As imperfect as you are, you’re the best providers of food products in the history of humans. The safest, most productive, most environmentally friendly producers of things like soy, in the history of man.”
As for Vincent, he’s going to keep telling his story to warn and inspire rural citizens to keep from loosing their livlihood.
“If you don’t paint yourself into the future, someone will paint it without you in it,” he concluded. “It’s going to take the last best people to protect the last best places.”