Category Archives: Uncategorized

Break Free from the Machine

      “The final dream of civilization is that everything will be controlled, organized, categorized; all wildness and spontaneity will be eradicated. Fish will live in fish farms. Trees will grow in tree farms. Animals for our food will live in feedlots. Humans will live in cities completely isolated from any other creatures (except cute pets), isolated from anything that might remind them of true wild nature. “Inferior races” will wither in poverty until they vanish. The Earth will be remodeled in the name of production. Any spontaneous, uncontrolled expression of life will be crushed.”

–Miles Olson, Author Unlearn, Rewild

Listen up first graders. My name is Mrs. Smith.

      Good morning Mrs. Smith!

Welcome to the Machine. In this classroom you will learn to sit quietly and pay attention to me.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

Forget your personal interests in life. I will decide what is important to learn. You will be obedient and follow orders.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

You will obey your teachers to start with, and when you are an adult you will obey your employers, doing whatever meaningless task they tell you to do.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

You will become good consumers and purchase whatever the commercials tell you to buy. You will go to college and pay for a piece of paper that says you are qualifed to serve the Machine.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

Above all, you will live out the rest of your days enslaved to the Machine, working to make monthly payments on college loans, a mortgage, a car, utility bills, phone bills, and more. Your life is not your own. It belongs to the Machine.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

      Individual: No, Mrs. Smith. I will not be assimilated!

Thirty years later…

      The Machine is everywhere and infinitely large. You cannot stop it by yelling at it. You cannot stop it by marching in protests. You cannot stop it by throwing rocks at it. You cannot stop it by burning down buildings or blowing up dams.

      We will lose half of all life on earth to the Machine this century. Below the sea, the coral reefs are dying and the fisheries are dwindling. Restaurants are substituting one fish for another on the menus as earlier species disappear from the oceans. The seas will be fished out by the middle of this century.

      Above the seas, our world is turning into deserts. For every bushel of corn produced, we still lose more than a bushel of soil. We have lost at least half the earth’s topsoil already. The soil carbon has been oxidized back into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. We have destabilized the global climate and we are losing more species to extinction every day.

      What is the Machine?

      The Machine is everything you have ever known and everything you have ever been told. The Machine is the unconscious collective sum of humanity. It assimilates everything in its path, turning meadows and wildlands into subdivisions and shopping malls. The Machine sucks the life out of children, making them into automatons that work without meaning and consume without purpose.

      Is the Machine alive?

      No. The Machine just assimilates and grows, assimilates and grows, consuming everything in its path. The Machine is only interested in its own culture of pizza, beer, and celebrity dramas. The real world is irrelevant to the Machine. The automatons live like zombies, oblivious to the loss of soil, habitat, and species around them.

      If we cannot defeat the Machine, then we should escape and be free!

      There is no escape. You can hide, but the Machine just keeps coming, devouring everything in its path. Your hiding places will be consumed and assimilated one by one until they are all gone.

      Then what can we do?

      The Machine has one weakness – it is utterly unconscious of its own existence. We can walk and play among the automatons unnoticed. And for those who are interested, we can study the Machine, figure out how it works, and redirect it from inside. I am looking for a few good warriors to help me. Are you up to the challenge?

      How does one become a warrior?

      Every human being is born with an inner light. It is a guiding light that can lead you through life, following a path that is uniquely yours. Learn to listen to your heart and not your head. Allow your inner light to guide you.

      The path of the warrior is not an easy one. The greatest challenge is to stay focused on that inner vision against the pomp and glare of Machine culture. Social conditioning starts at an early age, shaping the child to conform to the expectations of society. Rather than pursuing their own interests and passions, kids are molded to fit the Machine, to sit in desks and follow a routine prescribed by others. And they are bombarded by media glamorizing the Machine. Day by day, year by year, kids become increasingly confused until they lose track of that inner light.

      They may still emerge as teens or young adults with idealism or optimism, but they lose the ability to steer themselves and crumble under the weight of should’s and should-not’s. They learn to follow the rules and jump through hoops towards imaginary achievements.

      Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, most kids lose the light forever and become automatons enslaved by the Machine. Some are assimilated into the Machine without regret. Others rebel and try to prove that they control their own destiny. They refuse to be assimilated.

      They throw parties, get drunk, and smoke cigarettes and pot, thinking they are being wild and free. And yet, they play right into a trap of the Machine. They mimic what they see in Machine culture, pretending to have fun until it feels real to them. Ultimately, they are reduced to consumers, dependent upon and addicted to the corporations, money, and jobs that supply the goods.

      Those who knew how to play and have fun in nature as children may find themselves lost as adults. They sit around the campfire, drinking and talking about sports and dumb movies, because they have forgotten how to play. The only way to “connect with nature” is to pass a joint around and get high. But getting high and thinking one is connected with nature is very different from immersing oneself in nature and truly connecting.

      In the end, they are broken by the Machine, plugged into a life without vision. They work meaningless jobs by day, numb themselves in front of the television by night, and get wasted on the weekends to pretend they are free by forgetting that they are not.

      Unfortunately, those who lose respect for themselves also lose respect for the earth. They are automatons, blind to the beauty of nature. A few may profess to love nature, but they bring the party with them, leaving behind a trail of cigarette butts and beer cans.

      Once assimilated by the Machine, there are few that ever wake up again to remember their inner light. All that was human is lost. They may one day become productive members of society, but merely as instruments of the Machine.

      But we can make a difference. Here at Green University® LLC we are looking for a few good warriors to change the world. Through multiple levels of training, we can help you break free from the Machine and empower you to make a positive difference in the world.

Breaking Free
      Start by reclaiming lost freedoms as a hunter-gatherer. Learn to butcher deer, tan hides, and make your own clothing and equipment. Learn awareness skills, ecology, and survival skills. Learn how to walk free in a world full of artificial boundaries. The physical, mental, and emotional training is rigorous. At times you may hike long distances through rough terrain in daylight and darkness, learning to survive and thrive even with inadequate supplies for shelter, clothing, or food. You will learn how to be self-sufficient and survive independently in a world full of automatons.

      As apprentice warriors you gain hands-on experience in alternative construction, sustainable living, and green business development. You learn to think for yourself and to create opportunities you never imagined possible. You learn how to avoid paying a mortgage, how to eliminate utility bills, and how to greatly reduce your food expenses. You learn to live free of the Machine, even while you live within it.

      How far you go in the program is entirely up to you. For some, the inner light will guide you away from the battle, but set you free to live a life that is true. For others, the inner light will guide you to become warriors of peace, and together, we can infiltrate the Machine and render it harmless.

      Together we can reach out to the next generation and introduce kids to new possibilities. We can connect with anyone who shows a glimmer of light and hope and help reconnect them with the natural world. We can provide an example of freedom, demonstrating that any person can be free to live their dreams.

      And for those who are truly dedicated, we can maneuver ourselves into positions in business and government where decisions are made and take over the controls. We cannot shut down the Machine without rebellion from the automatons, but we can give them new tasks to green the Machine and halt the destruction of the rest of the planet. The automatons will never notice. They will do whatever the collective unconscious of the Machine tells them to do.

      We cannot run away from the Machine. Not any more. We must make our stand and make a positive difference. But please understand that the path of the warrior is not an easy one. When you break free from the Machine you develop awareness. You connect with the earth. You learn to care.

      We may yet lose half of all life on earth this century, and yet the automatons won’t even notice. They are not aware of the natural world. It won’t look any different to them. But you will notice. You will feel the pain of loss of every plant, animal, and child to the Machine. You will feel both the joy and the anguish of awareness.

Expect the Unexpected
      As apprentice warriors, you must also learn to expect the unexpected. Watch your backside at all times and learn to sleep with one eye open. Every moment is an opportunity to hone our awareness skills as we stalk up on each other for the attack or count coup and run away.

      Finally, as a warrior, never forget that death is stalking you.

      Death stalks all of us, warriors and automatons alike. But automatons never see it coming. Each day they go to work being busy at something they don’t care about, only to one day retire and live out their days glazed over in front of the television until death stalks up behind them and finishes them off. To live and die as a automaton is to have never lived at all.

      As a warrior, you cannot escape death, but you can see it coming. You can learn to be aware every moment of your life, always on guard for death, or on guard for another warrior-in-training ready to leap out at you. In the words of Thoreau, we seek “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

      As long as you are aware, you are alive, and when death finally comes, you can face it like a warrior, alive and fighting to your last breath.

      If you think you have what it takes to be a warrior of peace, then Join Us at Green University® LLC and together we can make a positive difference.

Interesting stuff?
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

      “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”

The Matrix, 1999



Filed under Education Reform, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival

Robins Barking at Owls and other Bird Language Basics

Book Cover: What the Robin Knows

Jon Young’s newest book on bird language.

I never knew that sitting and listening could be so fascinating. Parked there in the evening twilight, it was evident that the nearby robins were agitated, while those farther away were not. In retrospect, it seemed that the robins were barking, much as a dog might bark at something or someone scary, but in a shrill, bird-like way. I had often heard this behavior in the evening, and never made any sense of it, nor really tried to. But then this great horned owl swooped by overhead, and the “barking” followed it. The robins didn’t follow it themselves, but the barking did as robin after robin sounded the alarm in sequence along the owl’s flight path. I felt as if the door had just been opened to a whole new experience of nature.

            The following day, and again a couple weeks later, I encountered barking robins and stopped to investigate. In each case they were barking at an owl. I do not know if that call is always associated with owls, but I definitely know to look, listen, and pay attention now when I hear the robins barking.

            Interpreting bird language is a skill I’ve wanted to learn for the last thirty years, but somehow never figured out how to get started with it on my own. Back in the early 1980s, in junior high and high school, I devoured each one of Tom Brown’s books as fast as he could write them. I constantly practiced my fox walking, stalking, peripheral vision, intermittent attention, basic tracking, and survival skills. Brown also talked about the “concentric rings of nature,” how disturbances, such as a person walking, sent ripples of alarm out through nature. If you could learn to read these disturbances, he implied, then you could know what was happening beyond your field of vision. It was a skill I desperately wanted to learn, but somehow couldn’t figure out how to begin. Brown’s advice was basically to sit in one spot and observe nature until you figured it all out.  I admit that I never really did. I got restless. My mind wandered. I didn’t have any tools to decipher what was going on around me.

            I was completely stymied for twenty years, until Jon Young described learning the language of the birds in his Seeing Through Native Eyes audio series. Young outlined the five voices of the birds (song, companion calls, territorial aggression, juvenile begging, and alarms). Somehow, merely having definitions of these calls made it possible to begin to hear them for the first time.

            In retrospect, I wonder if I might have been more successful if I had spent more time in the bird-rich riparian areas of the valleys, rather than in the hills and mountains. The whitetail deer of the valleys, for example, are hypersensitive to bird language. Sometimes it seems like you cannot walk ten feet through the woods, even quietly stalking, without spooking out a bunch of whitetails a quarter mile away. It is very different experience than in the mountains, where an absent-minded person can walk around a bush and nearly bump into a mule deer. The mule deer are either not as attuned to bird language as whitetails, or there is much less bird language to listen to. I suspect it is the latter. 

            Nowadays I take junior high kids out camping each spring in the bird-rich riparian zone along the nearby Jefferson River. I am in that busy part of my life where I have not yet been able to prioritize a sit spot on a daily basis, but we at least try to spend a few days in the field before the junior high kids arrive, tuning in, practicing bird language, and evaluating potential means to incorporate lessons about bird language into the experience for the kids.

            This year I eagerly watched Jon Young’s new video, Bird Language: How to Interpret the Behaviors and Patterns of Nature, and learned several new tips for interpreting bird language. Most helpful was the journaling/mapping procedure, to record pretty much everything that is happening, as it is happening. Instead of randomly hearing bird song without meaning, and ultimately drifting off in thought, this method provided a clearly defined mission for my admittedly very busy Western mind to tackle and accomplish. Almost immediately I observed events that I may not have paid much attention to in the past. It opened up a whole new channel of experience. For example, while walking along the slough one day, I saw a common mallard duck shoot out of the water like a bullet. I recognized that it was not the usual, agitated, quacking rise and departure associated with my own approach, but rather that the duck was more like a missile fired straight out of the water. It reacted precisely to the arrival of a bald eagle flying in over the trees. It was utterly obvious, yet I probably wouldn’t have noticed the connection had I not just watched the bird language video. Somehow, writing it all down and making a map brings the bird world directly into my consciousness.  It is pretty basic stuff, but it is a start!

            Right on the heels of the video, Jon Young published his newest book, What the Robin Knows, which I also eagerly devoured. It is a veritable encyclopedia of bird language tips and tidbits, fleshing out and clarifying many of the themes he introduced in Seeing Through Native Eyes and the Bird Language DVD.  The book is definitely not just about robins, but also describes bird language in detail across numerous other songbirds, as well as water birds, such as geese. Young also clarifies some previous statements, such as, “You cannot trust the corvids.” While the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays do not necessarily play by the rules of the five voices of the birds, they nevertheless have a lot to talk about in their own way, as Young expounds on throughout the book.

            My only complaint about Young’s book is that it isn’t organized in encyclopedic fashion. The information is excellent, just so scattered through the text that it would be difficult to relocate and review a specific tip about any particular bird. The book wasn’t apparently written as a book per se, but condensed by editors from 200,000 words of other text and speeches given by Jon Young over the years then peppered with notes from bird biologists. No matter, the book is worth reading again and again and again. 

            A purist might argue that it is “cheating” to have such great resources to work from at all, rather than just sitting out in the woods and figuring it out from scratch. But on the other hand, even the best resources still just outline what is possible. It is ultimately up to the individual to go out and see firsthand some of the bird language patterns described by Jon Young, and from there to build one’s own library of observations about bird language and bird behavior.  A person can still spend a lifetime listening and learning.

            Having spent the past week visiting a friend, I couldn’t help but notice a particular robin singing on and off throughout each day.  We were busy, so I didn’t have much time to sit and study bird language. But in the middle of a conversation one evening, I did notice the robin “barking” away at something. When I walked over to take a look, there was an owl sitting in a tree. It was a real thrill to recognize the same kind of behavior yet again. The door has definitely been opened to a whole new kind of experience in nature!

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Filed under Nature Awareness, Reviews: Books & Videos, Uncategorized

Work versus Play

Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?

I love my work. I’ve had a passion to make a positive difference in the world since I was a child. The schism between economics and the environment was a particularly compelling issue to me. I often watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and there was a constant debate between the need for jobs versus the need to protect the environment. I wanted to help. I wanted to know if it were possible to create a sustainable civilization. I wanted to know how to do it, and I wanted to come up with a plan to help get us there. It was my singular mission in life, and for a while, I thought I had it all figured out.

Creating a quasi-sustainable lifestyle was the easy part. I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck in a job because I had too many dreams to live, and my own mission seemed too important. I theorized that a good path to success would be to save up a small nest egg, waste nothing, and build a low-cost solar home on cash, to avoid paying monthly expenses such as rent, a mortgage, a big utility bill, or college loans. Then I would have a secure home base and the freedom to focus on the mission.

Although it took a few years longer than anticipated, the theory largely worked. I found a partner in high school, got married, and saved up a small nest egg. We bought land, moved into a tent, and built the American Dream for about the cost of a new car. We eventually added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, zeroing out our already meager utility bill. It also looked really good on my resume. I figured that I could really change the world if I could just build up a sufficient resume to get into politics and have a platform to speak to the American public.

It is not so much that we need a bunch of new regulations and red tape to tell people what they can and cannot do. I do have the aptitude and attention to be a good policy wonk, to get into the details of good legislation. But that’s not where change happens. Change happens when individual Americans get a new idea and run with it. As I saw it, my “job” was to introduce new ideas, new memes, to the general public, to illustrate potential paths to sustainability. Politics offered the promise of regular airtime on the microphone to get the message out.

I focused on my writing to better flesh out cutting edge ideas about building sustainable homes, connecting with nature, prospering in the green economy, and reflecting on our place in the universe. I liked to imagine that getting into politics would be a good way to market my books, and I could invest any income in further making the world a better place.

But in order to be a serious political candidate, I would need more than just a pretty house and a few books on my resume. I also needed business and leadership credentials, and I had about fifty different green businesses and products that I wanted to launch. I wanted to demonstrate green prosperity, that it is possible to make a living while making the world a better place.

A logical next step was to start a publishing company and print my own books on fully recycled paper. From there it was natural to start a retail bookstore and sell my own titles and other quality books and products. In addition, I was already teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills part time, which expanded into separate programs for youth and adults. I started a nonprofit organization to promote conservation and recreation on our local Jefferson River. I also built a couple more houses to refine my theories and designs on low-cost solar construction, with the hope of eventually starting my own construction company. I was continually looking for partners to help launch some of my other business concepts as well. With half a dozen different careers, I was spread too thin to give any one area the required attention, but I managed to keep them all moving forward a little bit at a time. It all looked good on my resume, and I thought I might be minimally qualified to try my hand at politics.

The other thing on every politician’s resume is family. For better or worse, a politician is judged by his personal life, and I was acutely aware of that with my wife and kids from the very beginning. For example, I genuinely wanted to raise children, and I felt that I had a lot to offer. I felt like I was making a positive difference in the world when we adopted our first three children and later had a baby. My love for them was and is sincere. In addition, I was equally aware that my family looked really good on my resume. Indeed, my family represented everything I believed in and worked for. I can think of at least two other couples who were likely inspired to adopt because of our experience, and I hoped to inspire many more as a public figure.

Through twenty years of marriage I tried to win my wife’s support for a political career. But she never wanted a public life, never wanted anyone to know we existed, and objected to efforts to market my books. With these issues, and our very different emotional needs, our marriage eventually crumbled and our family fell apart. I not only lost any chance of launching a political career in any foreseeable future, I also lost the one thing I believed in promoting most of all – family. For the first time in my life, my focus shifted from the world’s problems to my own, as I have struggled to resolve the past and mend broken relationships with my children.

Fortunately, the last couple years have been really good to me. I have a new love, and she understands me in a way my ex never did. We laugh, growl, and play a lot, which is a completely new experience to me. The transition has been hard on the kids, and my relationship with my older daughters remains rocky, but my relationship with my younger boys is better than ever. We go on some great adventures together, such as canoeing and carp hunting. We are currently building a small castle for my youngest son, Edwin. He and I are both taking fencing lessons. We have a lot of great battles. And while my political career hangs in limbo for the foreseeable future, I am enjoying indulging in my hobbies. I am currently writing a book about foraging wild foods, and I could easily spend the next ten years just writing about things that interest me.

But with the present state of the world, I often feel like we are merely dancing on the decks of the Titanic, steaming towards an iceberg as if we are invincible. Dancing is good for the soul, yet I wouldn’t count on it altering the course of the ship.

I hear the call of duty, and I know that for our children’s sake we must make an all-out effort to create a sustainable civilization now, not later. I sincerely believe that I have the skills and aptitude to make a significant positive difference in the world, and yet, I am merely hanging out, playing games, and having fun.

My ex and I were fortunate in that we owned two houses, two business, and two cars to ease the pain of splitting the estate. However, I am definitely rebuilding my personal life, my businesses, and my resume, and I feel that I am a long ways from being ready to enter politics. Strangely, I find myself in less of a hurry now than before, if only because I see little choice but to take time to find solid footing again. Yet the need is greater than ever before.

The Titanic was considered unsinkable, and that is our attitude today as a nation. We are steaming along as if we can just ram through whatever lay in our path. But the iceberg I could see ahead of us as a child seems to loom overhead today. The captain is off taking a break, and nobody seems particularly interested or qualified to take the helm and steer us in a new direction. I would gladly do my duty and serve my country in any way possible if I had the opportunity. I’m just not sure I can rebuild my resume in time to do any good.

It is possible, and perhaps likely, that I will never accomplish the mission that called to me since childhood. I gave it everything I had for thirty years, and I feel as though I am now starting all over. But if the iceberg is unavoidable, and nobody else takes the leadership to do anything about it, then at the very least, I intend to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. I will be dancing on the decks of the Titanic with everyone else. It is not my preferred choice, yet for the moment, it seems to be my only choice.

If you, however, want to change the future, if you want to work together to chart a new course and a new destiny, then by all means, speak up. Let’s talk. Let’s make a plan, let’s make a difference, and let’s do it before we run out of time.

Thomas J. Elpel
June 15, 2012

Mr. Elpel,

Today I was offered, and I accepted a job as a research assistant for a Canadian politician. Before being informed about the interview this last week, I was certain I would be on my way to Montana come end of October. That said, I won’t be joining you this November for an internship.

I want to thank you for taking the time to write back to me so quickly and with such detailed information. I recognize that you’re likely very busy with e-mail and writing and work etc. I’d like to express my appreciation for you taking the time to communicate.

In your article ‘Work versus Play: Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?’ you say you feel like we’re ‘dancing on the decks of the Titanic’. I can’t tell you how much and how often I think similar thoughts – whether it is even possible to change the world or if our actions are ultimately futile, simply wasted energy in the big picture. This has been a big part of my thought process and has resulted in a contemplation of two major life paths:

1) Keep on dancing on the decks! Prepare myself and those close to me for coming change, but make little attempt to influence others’ lifestyles and actions. The ship is sinking anyways, might as well have fun, or as Joseph Campbell says, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”


2) Try my damnedest to make as big of an impact as I possibly can – fight the good fight and hope that our tribes’ collective actions will be successful. Heed Margaret Mead’s advice, “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I have not concluded which, if either, choice is valid / correct. For now, option 2 seems to be the better for emotional and spiritual well-being. At least here there’s a place for hope.

I’d like you to know I’m all-in for option 2. Hopefully my new job will allow me to have influence on major decisions, in large or infinitesimally small ways. It will also help me, should I decide to run for office at some point.

I feel compelled to tell you all this to let you know that I’m on board to make a difference. I hope to keep in contact, and have no doubt that I will come to intern with you or participate in one of your workshops in the future.

All the Best,


P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed Participating in Nature. While reading your narratives and learning about your philosophy, I felt like I was reading a much clearer, more organized and focused version of some of my own thoughts and ideas. Thank you for sharing and showing me and others like me that we’re not alone.


Filed under Autobiographical, Uncategorized

A Day in the Life of the Tribe

      Back in 2002, I volunteered to bring my daughter’s seventh grade class out on an overnight wilderness survival camping trip. We were deluged with 1.3 inches of rain overnight – and had nothing to keep us dry but shelters built of sticks and bark. But we had such a great time that I have continued hosting the Junior High Camping Trip every year, and it is now written into the Harrison School curriculum. Being a small school, we bring all of the seventh and eighth graders out together for three days and two nights each May.

      The outing is very hands-on oriented, engaging the kids in the many activities shown in the video above and much more. Instead of merely talking about nature, science, and the way that our ancestors lived, they experience it directly, being deeply immersed in this unique outdoors experience. However, it also seems important to reflect on the experience afterwards and process it on another level.

      This year, the students were asked to write a sort of journal about what it might have been like to be part of a tribe living in this area. The students shared their essays with me, and with permission, I am sharing one of those stories here:

Day as a Tribal Member
English Final Test, 2012
By Taya

Junior high students work together to construct a bow and drill fire set and start a fire with it.

      I sit up, feeling a small breeze hit my face. Sunlight streams from the small holes the wooden shelter doesn’t cover. My people are already gathering mint leaves for tea, so I slip on my worn moccasins and crawl out of the wickiup. Voices, speaking in our native tongue, surround me as I walk to the fire. I glance at the slightly curved stick and wooden board knowing that one of my tribe members must have used a bow and drill to create friction, and eventually fire. Looking at my father’s shiny brow tells me that he made the fire. He nods at me, so I turn and jog into the peaceful, wide band of trees. The awakened wilderness engulfs me, and drops of dew glisten on the green plants and a nearby spider web clinging to a tree branch.

     As I search for a fairly dry piece of wood and a mid-sized stone, I carefully avoid a duck nest lying underneath a small tree. The two weapons I grab will be used to hunt for prey. Cautiously, I place one foot in front of the other, like a fox, ducking underneath branches, trying to make as little sound as possible. Disturbing the forest and its creatures could cost my tribe and me a morning meal. I hear a scurrying beside me and quickly pause to turn my head to the noise. A rabbit crouches behind a shrub, nose twitching. It turns to dart away from me, but it waited a moment too long. I have already clutched and thrown my stick at the rabbit’s gray body before it has moved a hand’s length. I carry the limp creature back to camp with my teeth peeking out of my mouth. I lay the furry animal, along with three others, beside an elder. She will cut the rabbits with a deer rib saw knife and toss the meat into a smoking pan to be cooked. The fur could quite possibly be used as a garment later.

Students wade into the swamp to gather cattail roots (rhizomes) and shoots for our meals.

      Next, I run like a coyote, with knees reaching my chest, to a marsh only a short distance from my home. There, cattails roam the inky waters. Taking off my footwear, I wade through the knee-deep substance. I pull many cattails from their roots, feeling the muck seep between my toes. With the plants in both hands, I head back to camp, hearing the birds sing their sweet melodies. All of a sudden, the noise to my right stops, and I can only hear a steady, staccato bird warning call. I turn my head right and catch a glimpse of tan, buckskin clothing disappear behind a tree. I faintly call out, and my little brother’s head peeks out. I laugh, and with him by my side, we pick dandelion leaves and flower heads to go with the cattails.

Taya uses hot coals and a blow tube to burn out a cup from a section of cottonwood root.

      Once we are back, I chop the pale cattail roots into a wooden bowl I had made by blowing on ashes in the center of a log to burn a deep hole in it. I add the dandelions, and soon adults and children have gathered to eat the salad. The greens that didn’t fit in the bowl, I lay on a bark plate.

     The sun is completely out by the time our meal is gone. I quietly sip my mint tea, from a cup also burned with ashes, staring at the gray sky near the mountain peaks. I then gather my belongings and toss them in my shelter. To prepare for dinner, we move the fire to a different location, so there is now a hot pit. While some are placing stalks of cattails in the pit, others are putting in fresh deer meat, killed with an atlatl, a device used for throwing a long dart. Roots, wild plant leaves, and other greens are also added to the pit. It is then covered with grass, picked by little fingers, bark pieces, water to create steam, and finally soil.

We covered ourselves with mud, then played stalking games in the woods.

     While the food is steaming, which will take a few hours, I gather all of the children. Their challenge is to get as close as possible to one of his/her parents without being spotted. We all crawl in thick mud. I crawl on my stomach to get as low as possible to my mother. She is sewing moccasins and a shirt. I look at the men, and they are either sharpening their knives or brain-tanning hides. My father is trying to tan my rabbit hide. The game ends after a few hours, with my brother winning. Being so small, he was unnoticeable.

     I go to help my father, and soon, dinner is ready. A few pieces of meat did not cook thoroughly, but other than that, the food was delicious. Right after we are done eating, the rain shower hits us. I wash my bark plate in a stream and then head to my wickiup. Although it’s not very late, my eyes feel droopy. I rest my head and slowly close my eyes, oblivious to the rain pounding. I think about being a bird and come to a conclusion. We are alike. I am free in this place, and so is the bald eagle. I spread my wings and drift into sleep.

For more information about the Junior High Camping Trip, be sure to read Outdoor Classroom (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2011) and more comments from students of the 2011 camping trip. Also, take a look at our Classroom in the Woods DVD, and please check out our Stone Age Living Skills Programs for Schools for more information about our classes.

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Filed under Education Reform, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival

The New Era of Self-Sufficiency

As a wilderness survival instructor, I have spent a good deal of my life out practicing skills—sleeping in holes in the ground, eating roots and bushes, starting fires by rubbing sticks together, and trying to figure out how to kill stuff with my bare hands, since it seems like cheating to bring a fishing pole or a gun. These survival skills were the skills of our ancestors, who lived by their hands and wits for most of human history, until the rise of agriculture. But one must wonder if this kind of traditional knowledge is still relevant today.

Thomas J. Elpel, Keynote Speech.

Speaking at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska. October 2011.

It is arguably self-indulgent to go camping in the woods to freeze and starve for entertainment while the whole world seems to be careening towards economic and environmental collapse. Indeed, the practice of survival skills flies in the face of the prevailing conservation ethic, which preaches that we should stay on the trails and leave no trace. As the saying goes, we should “take only pictures and leave only footprints,” not go thrashing through the woods, breaking down trees to build shelters, nor throwing sticks and rocks at the wildlife. But having done these things, I would posit that traditional skills are absolutely relevant today, and that by rekindling our connection to the natural world in this way, we can find answers to some of the most vexing problems that face our species.

Connecting with Nature
The way we relate to nature ebbs and flows with the fashions of our culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in the management of our national parks. Places like Montana’s Glacier National Park, for example, were not set aside out of any particular conservation ethic, but at the request of the Northern Pacific Railroad, to create a tourist destination with ritzy accommodations to entice wealthy clientele to ride the railroad West. Later, the rise of the middle class made the national parks a playground for common people, a place to camp with the family and feed the bears for entertainment. And America’s love affair with the car led not just to drive-in movie theaters, restaurants, and churches, but also to paved roads winding through geyser features in Yellowstone, and drive-through trees in California’s Redwood and Sequoia National Parks.

The prevailing philosophy today is supposedly more ecologically enlightened, and environmental educators often remind us that we are part of the interconnected web of life. Yet, in the next breath, they tell us not to step off the boardwalk. We are told to leave nature as it is, and not touch, pick, or eat anything. It is as if nature has been reduced to an exhibit in a museum. We can look at it, but not participate in it. In many cases it isn’t even legal to gather firewood and build a campfire, not even in the dead of winter, camped miles from the nearest road, in the middle of a million acres of firewood.

This hands-off philosophy isn’t limited to the national parks. It is deeply embedded in our culture, touted by ecologists, environmentalists, wilderness advocates, boy scouts, parents, public land managers, and even taught in public schools. The theology is well intentioned. Our species is clearly devastating the planet. But there is something wrong with an ideology that tells us on the one hand that we are part of nature—and on the other hand that we are the bad part!

As a society, we have embarked on perhaps the greatest social experiment ever conducted. What happens when we tell our children to look at nature, but not to touch it? What happens when kids are herded into organized sports, but never really get beyond the lawn grass to explore, play, or build forts in the woods or gullies at the edge of town? What happens when kids spend all their free time exploring virtual worlds, but not the real one?

Consider the Army veteran who was unable to start a fire in my neighbor’s wood stove, because he couldn’t light a big log with a little match. He had no concept of tinder and kindling, and he was unable to warm up the house on a cold winter day. He is not alone, and I am continually shocked to meet adults who don’t know how to chop wood, or cannot start a campfire without gasoline and matches. We have an entire generation of young people who are very smart, yet don’t know how the world works and don’t know how to take care of themselves. Conceptual knowledge is meaningless without context, much like having a brain in a box on a shelf. What good is it unless you can take it out and do something with it?

Author Richard Louv called the nation’s attention to the dangers of losing our connection with nature in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. His book sparked a new back to nature movement, as people began to recognize the importance of connecting with the natural world and having free time to play and experiment in the environment. Even the Forest Service has jumped on the bandwagon with its Kids in the Woods programs in an attempt to reconnect children and nature.

For those of us involved in traditional skills, Louv’s book labeled a problem to which we had already grasped the solution, as implied in the title of my wilderness survival book, Participating in Nature.

In short, what one can learn while playing in the woods is nearly impossible to quantify on a written test, yet essential to our understanding of real-world physics, essential to the quest for sustainability, and essential for sound resource management. In my case, figuring out how to meet my needs for shelter, fire, water, and food in the wilderness provided the proper grounding to address those same needs in society.

As a child, I lived in what later became known as the Silicon Valley, but every summer we traveled to Montana to visit my grandmother, Josie Jewett. She lived, “up a creek without a paddle,” as she often liked to say, and we kids spent our summers playing in that creek, building forts, and roaming the hills and meadows. Grandma Josie still cooked on a woodstove, and every day she made a pot of herbal tea, using herbs such as peppermint, yarrow, blue violets, or red clover, which we collected on our walks and dried. When we moved back to Montana for my junior high and high school years, Grandma’s house was the one place that I wanted to go every weekend and every summer.

As a teenager and young adult, I indulged in things that our culture doesn’t necessarily view as productive. I had little interest in going to college or getting a job. Instead, I hiked hundreds of miles in the mountains, studying plants, stalking deer, and experimenting with survival skills. Every day was a new opportunity to starve, trying to live on roots that were too small to justify harvesting them, trying to outwit ground squirrels that were smarter than me, or trying to down a dinner of fried grasshoppers and enjoy it.

Every night was a new opportunity to freeze in shelters that seemed like good ideas in the survival books, but didn’t really work in the northern Rockies. The challenge is that you can’t just take a class and get a diploma that says you now know how to survive in the world. You can get the basic idea, but ultimately, you have to go experiment to figure out how these skills apply to your specific environment.

I lay awake, shivering in many cold, damp, or drafty shelters, before I learned how to build some that were adequately warm and dry, or sometimes downright cozy, even without a blanket. Through trial and error, with little more than my bare hands, I learned the fundamentals of sound construction principles and energy efficiency. Lacking a tent or sleeping bag, a thermostat, or a furnace, I became acutely aware of heat loss due to drafts or conduction. Trying to stay dry taught me a lot about proper shingling and ditching around my dwellings. Hauling firewood to my shelters made energy itself tangible and quantifiable and taught me the importance of conservation. Rubbing sticks together and living with fire gave me an intimate familiarity with my energy source in all kinds of conditions, from hot and dry, to cold and windy, drenching wet, or even while sleeping inches away in a grass-lined bed inside a shelter built of kindling.

My greatest fear in life was getting stuck in a job and losing my freedom. I understood that I could not just hang out at my grandmother’s house and tan hides, eat cookies, and go camping my whole life. But I desperately did not want to go the conventional route of going to college, getting a job, and paying down a mortgage until retirement. That seemed a little more complicated than it had to be anyway.

With my background in survival skills, I recognized that it was fundamentally the same issue. We are all on one great survival trip, trying to figure out how to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food—preferably without destroying the planet in the process. That really is the bottom line. How can we sustainably meet our needs for shelter, water, fire, and food without consuming all the earth’s resources, without altering the climate, and without being enslaved to a meaningless job until we die?

The conventional route of getting a job and paying a mortgage doesn’t really work. Conventional houses are way too expensive, and not even very good. Most houses require a furnace and constant inputs of fossil fuels to keep the pipes from freezing and breaking. The bathrooms are virtually guaranteed to rot out halfway through the mortgage. The walls are so flimsy that you can punch a hole through one with a fist. From the floor to the roof, there is an endless parade of ripping out, landfilling, and replacing carpets and cabinetry, furniture, and shingles.

It is any wonder that we struggle with resource depletion and global warming when every person in America is burning up the pavement running back and forth to a job that is generally bad for the environment, just to make a pile of money to throw at their home mortgage, utility bills, and endless repairs? What happens if we hit a recession and don’t bounce back? How long can we maintain the illusion of being an affluent nation?

It made sense to me to focus on the basics and build my own house, figuring that if I had a place to live and no mortgage then I would be free to do whatever I wanted in life. I had no qualifications to build a house, beyond having read some books on the subject, but I was accustomed to making do.

I did know how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, and with that on my resume I got a job working with troubled teens in the wilderness, and saved up a small nest egg to get started. I married my girlfriend from high school, and together we bought land, moved into a tent and built a passive solar stone and log home for about the cost of a new car. Later, we added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, producing on average as much power as we consume. Naturally, the house doesn’t have either a furnace or a thermostat.

Ironically, life’s choices later took us away from home for most of eight years, but I never really worried about the house. We could leave it all winter without risk of freezing the plants or breaking the pipes. The house just sat there sustaining itself. The solar water heater kept producing hot water; the photovoltaic panels kept generating electricity, running the meter backwards. I stopped by every couple weeks and watered the greenhouse, which kept growing greens, and thanks to my brother’s care, the chickens kept laying eggs. And that’s the funny thing about sustainable living. It’s really not all that difficult to achieve and it is far easier than the conventional route. If we had built houses properly in the first place, then we wouldn’t be facing such dire economic and environmental issues today.

I read an article recently outlining ways to create jobs and get the economy back on track. Oddly, one of key suggestions was to provide incentives for foreigners to come to America to start businesses and create jobs, as if we Americans are no longer capable of doing it ourselves. Are we really that far gone as a country, that we are dependent on the charity of others for employment opportunities? Have Americans lost all sense of self-sufficiency, reduced to mere couch potatoes, capable of thinking, but not of doing? What happened to the can-do attitude that built this country?

The reality is that graduating from college with a piece of a paper that says you know something no longer guarantees that you can get a good job. Getting a job no longer guarantees that you can keep it for life, and having a fat retirement fund one day is no guarantee that it will still be worth anything when you actually need it.

Welcome to the new era of self-sufficiency. It is about shelter, fire, water, and food. Whether you live in the city or the country, there are always steps you can take to become more self-sufficient. You can prioritize your expenses to pay down your mortgage faster. You can improve the energy efficiency of your home to become more independent from the power company. You can remodel and retrofit rot-prone materials with something made to stand the test of time. You can collect rainwater from the roof for use as household or irrigation water. You can plant fruit trees to grow free food either for yourself or for children walking down the sidewalk. If you have the skills to take care of yourself, then you have the skills to take care of others, and you will never be short of work. Moreover, if you have your shelter, fire, water, and food in order, then you can choose whether you want to work or not.

Today there are a great many disenfranchised young adults who don’t feel that college is for them, and don’t want to get a job and become hopelessly stuck in the machine for the rest of their lives. I founded a fledgling Green University® to provide a new and desperately needed model for higher education—one where young people can get grounded with hands-on wilderness skills, combined with a healthy dose of do-it-yourself alternative construction and sustainable living skills. It is my hope to eventually mentor participants in green business development, providing a support network to help students incubate enterprises that will make a positive difference in the world.

In addition to mentoring young adults, the highlight of my year is always taking the local junior high kids out for three days and two nights of wilderness survival skills. They sleep in shelters of sticks and bark, even in torrential rains, and sometimes they sleep in piles of grass without even a blanket. They make fires by rubbing sticks together. They make their own dishes; they wade into the swamps and gather cattail roots for food; they cook their own meals, doing such things as a stir-fry using hot rocks on a slab of bark instead of a metal pan, or cooking bread in a stone oven. They stalk wildlife; they stalk each other. They play in the mud; they have marshmallow blowgun wars.

As one student, John, wrote after a camping trip, “I have pondered the simple construction of the mousehut… sticks, grass, and bark piled on each other, but yet it is one of the warmest shelters I have ever encountered. How interesting that a mouse, a hundred times smaller than myself, can survive performing the same tasks we did to make the shelter. Also, how smart this creature must be to come up with this simple, but yet, complex design. In my opinion, you must experience it to fully understand what it is all about.”

I doubt that any one of these kids will ever be in a situation where they have to build a mouse shelter or start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But I also know that you can ignite something much bigger than a fire with these kinds of skills. Doing hands-on skills connects the brain to the hands and the hands to the world. This kind of hands-on ability not only makes it possible to transform ideas into reality, but also facilitates the flow of information the other direction, from the hands to the brain, opening up a world of infinite possibilities.

Towards a Sustainable Civilization
Perhaps most importantly, the hands-on quest for shelter, fire, water, and food ultimately enables a deeper connection with the natural world. As I wrote in Participating in Nature:

      In primitive living you learn about the wilderness as you create your niche in the ecosystem and gather the resources you need for living. For example, to harvest edible plants you have to learn about them. You learn the names and the habitats of plants. You learn about individual edible plants by eating them and by noticing the changes in the appearance and taste throughout the year. As you harvest plants you learn to recognize them throughout the year, as dead stalks, or seeds, or even by the roots. As you seek out edible plants you begin to notice characteristics of the soil; you begin to notice that your desired herb grows better in one type of soil than another.

The knowledge that you acquire is not always scientific, but you develop an acute awareness of nature and natural resources. For instance, you learn the basics of geology as you look for different types of rock that are useful as tools in primitive living. You might look for quartz, quartzite, or chert rocks to use as “flint” in flint and steel fire starting. Or you might look for sandstone to use for sanding arrow shafts or bows, or to abrade a stone tool. You might look for a clay deposit for making pottery, or for various minerals for mineral paints. You learn about geology as you spend hours searching the riverbank for the right piece of round, symmetrical, fine-grained rock for a hammerstone. You begin to notice if the rocks around you are igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary. Instead of merely hiking from point A to point B, the process of hunting and gathering makes you investigate the land around you.

This intimate connection with nature isn’t just critical to our own well-being, it is essential to the effort to conserve nature. The bottom line is that the more you know about something, the more you care about it. The more you care about it, the more you will work to protect it. One of the greatest threats to wilderness and wild places is a lack of cars at the trailheads. If we reduce nature to mere wallpaper — something to look at, but not to touch — then who is really going to care about it or advocate for it?

As another student, Chas, wrote after the three-day camp-out, “It has always seemed to me that nature is like a piece of artwork, fragile, but only to be admired through the gentlest of hands. We go walking on a weather-beaten path that so many have followed, but never step off to travel farther into the heart of the forest. I now know what it is like to go into the depths of the forest, experiencing the full force of the wild. Nature is not a picture. It is much more than that.”

Some of the most successful conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited or Trout Unlimited, are driven by consumers of nature — people who work to expand habitat and breed more ducks and more trout because they like to hunt and fish for them. This act of participating in nature effectively increases the demand for more nature. As ecologists and environmentalists, we need to adopt this new paradigm and help the populace reconnect with the natural world before we bulldoze and develop everything that is left.

As Spencer wrote after the camping trip, “The outdoor classroom experience has given me a more in-depth look at nature and our ancestors than any movie or text book has or ever will. Living in the outdoors has shown me that nature is full of surprises and that it provides everything that we need to survive. If more schools took their students on outdoor trips like we do, humans might learn to be more conservative and save our world.”

An experiential connection with nature is in fact imperative if we are to conserve and sustainably manage our natural resources. Consider energy. What happens when people grow up without a quantifiable sense of energy or knowledge of where it comes from when they flip on a light switch? How can we formulate sensible energy policy or steward our resources when energy itself is an abstraction?

If you spend enough time living with fire, you can develop a quantifiable sense of energy. You will know approximately how much heat and light a given pile of firewood produces, and from that you can better extrapolate to make meaning out of energy policy concerning coal, oil, gas, or the various avenues of generating electricity. Likewise, if you have a solar water heater, you can temporarily turn off your electric water heater, to experientially discover just how much hot water a solar water heater produces according to the weather and the seasons.

My local utility would very much like to construct a massive transmission line, with fourteen-story tall towers, down our local section of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. It is being touted as a “green” energy project because it would serve partly as a conduit to send wind energy from Montana south to markets in Las Vegas and California. But it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that there is nothing remotely green or sustainable about building this kind of industrial infrastructure and ramrodding it through virgin land. It would be far more sensible if utilities installed solar water heaters for their customers and took care of any maintenance, just as some utilities still come around to light customers’ gas furnaces each fall. Rather than each customer researching solar water heater brands and installers, the utility could take advantage of volume-pricing to install thousands of identical units, charging customers for some, but not all of the energy they save. In effect, the customer would get a small discount on the monthly utility bill, while the utility would get to sell the same electricity twice. That would constitute green energy policy.

A Deeper Connection
There is one more thing you may begin to see when you spend enough time in nature and begin to connect on a deeper level. You can begin to see the things that are no longer there.

That is perhaps the greatest irony of our cultural disconnect with nature. If you don’t know what lives outside your window, then you will not notice if it disappears, either. In fact, you can take a lush and forested ecosystem and completely denude it, and if it happens slowly enough, than nobody will notice any difference.

I’ve walked thousands of miles across several western states, looking at the ground. Prior to the domestication of livestock, semi-arid rangelands took care of themselves. In North America, massive herds of buffalo migrated across the West, sticking together for protection from predators. These herds nuked everything in their path. Anything not eaten was trampled into the soil, effectively planting fresh seeds while providing a mulch cover of organic matter and manure.

Today our rangelands suffer most from a lack of animal impact, so new seeds don’t get planted. The bare ground between the plants keeps spreading, even when the existing grass grows tall and green. In places like west Texas or South Africa, where the wild animals were too numerous to count only two hundred years ago, the land supports only a handful of cows over hundreds of miles today. The same process is happening all the way north to Montana, but almost nobody has a clue, because most people are too removed from nature to know what they are looking at on the ground, and whatever you see out the window looks completely normal, as long as you have nothing else to compare it to.

Moreover, the thing that makes the soil brown or black in the first place is carbon that has been extracted from the atmosphere and, in the case of rangelands, trampled into the ground to build soil. Grasses grow rapidly, and grasslands can sequester significantly more carbon per acre than forests. We’ve not only shut down the sequestration cycle on every continent, we’ve also oxidized half or more of the organic carbon from most crop and rangelands back into the atmosphere. And we wonder why we have a global warming problem.

It is hard to imagine now, but people once hunted pigs in the forests of Israel. Greece was also covered by rich Mediterranean forests. The fertile fields of Libya once grew grain for the Roman Empire. Is it any wonder that people fight all the time in places like Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq, where the land has lost its fertility?

We may see on the news that the capital of China is in danger of being buried under sand dunes, but what we don’t see is that we are also turning the American West into a new Saharan desert. You can watch it happen year by year if you are accustomed to looking at the ground.

The problem can be easily remedied once it is understood, and with proper soil management, we could potentially put the brakes on global warming. Yet, the ground beneath our feet is functionally invisible to most people. Perhaps we could see it better if we took off our shoes and got back in touch with the earth.

I like to think of primitive living as a metaphor for living in the modern world. The metaphor reminds us that we are part of the ecosystem and we have no choice but to take from it. But in the quest to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the ecosystem, and we become empowered to make a difference in the world. Playing in the woods won’t solve all the world’s problems, or necessarily any of them. But it can point us in the right direction, and direction is perhaps what we need more than anything else.

Thomas J. Elpel delivered this as the keynote speech at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska in October 2011.


Filed under Conservation, Education Reform, Energy Issues / Policy, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival

Déjà vu: NorthWestern Energy’s Risky Investment

NorthWestern Energy's actions resemble those that destroyed the Montana Power Company

“For nearly 90 years, the Montana Power Company exemplified the very best of American capitalism. It provided cheap, reliable electricity for the people of Montana, excellent benefits for thousands of employees and generous, reliable dividends for its stockholders.”

So begins the narrative from the 2003 CBS News/60 Minutes expose, Who Killed Montana Power? Reading the narrative online, it is difficult to shake the sense of déjà vu, that we are witnessing the same tragic story all over again, through NorthWestern Energy’s risky investment in the proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI).

Quoting again from the 60 Minutes report, “Everyone was happy, except for the corporate officers and their Wall Street investment banking firm who decided there was more money to be made in the more glamorous and profitable world of telecommunications. The result exemplified the worst of American capitalism… [The demise of Montana Power] may not be the biggest scandal of our time, but to its stockholders, it shows how greed and outright stupidity destroyed one of the oldest and proudest companies in America.”

In parallel with Montana Power, NorthWestern Energy is betting the company on a risky investment that offers nothing for its customer base here in Montana. MSTI’s sole purpose is to satisfy corporate greed by exporting electricity from Montana to potential customers in Las Vegas and southern California. MSTI will not provide electricity to Montanans. It will not provide jobs for Montanans. And there is nothing green about industrializing the Montana landscape with fourteen-story tall transmission towers. What MSTI will do is give out-of-state customers the opportunity to bid against Montanans for our hydroelectric, wind, and coal-fired electricity, driving up rates instate.

In the pursuit of profit, NorthWestern Energy is openly waging war against Montanans, trying to ramrod this monstrosity across farms and ranches and right through some of our most scenic valleys. NorthWestern lobbyists pressured state legislators into passing HB 198, giving corporations the power of eminent domain. It enables companies like NorthWestern to take private property for profit-making ventures. But what kind of a company wages war on its own customers?

Quoting again from the 60 Minutes expose, Montana Power “was going to join the revolution by transforming itself into a high-tech telecommunications company called Touch America. The decision was made on the advice of its New York investment banker, Goldman Sachs, without consulting the stockholders.”

Montana Power lobbied the legislature to push through a bill that deregulated the price of electricity, and opened the markets up to competition – even though Montana had some of the lowest utility rates in the country. Deregulation inflated the value of Montana Power, at which point the company began selling off its assets to invest in Touch America, following the advice of Goldman Sachs. The result was that, “Electricity prices in Montana doubled, then redoubled, and doubled again – refineries, lumber mills, and the last working copper mine in Butte was forced to suspend operations because they couldn’t afford their electricity bills.”

Any corporation that wages war on its own customers in the pursuit of profit is at risk of implosion. Good investing begins here at home, not on market speculation. We lost a great power company when the executives at Montana Power got greedy. It is unfortunate to see NorthWestern Energy following the same path, gambling on risky investments at the expense of its customer base. It is going to take a long time for NorthWestern to heal these wounds. The company could start by canceling MSTI and offering a big apology for its actions.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (, PO Box 697, Pony, MT 59747. This guest editorial was published in The Madisonian September 22, 2011.

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Filed under Conservation, Economics, Energy Issues / Policy, Uncategorized