July 16th, 2007

A Cautionary Tale
By Neil M. Travis, Montana

Once upon a time a young man set out to find his place in the world. In his wandering he chanced upon a beautiful valley surrounded by snow capped mountains. Down the length of the valley, a river fed by the melting snows meandered in a lazy manner toward the west. Down the hillsides cold mountain streams splashed over the rocks, and springs fed icy cold ponds with water so clear you had to look twice to see it. Tall pines and firs covered the hillsides and aspens formed groves along the base of the hills. The streams were lined with stately cottonwood and willow trees and the meadows were covered with grass and wild flowers. The streams were filled with trout and the woods teemed with wildlife. What a wonderful place it was, and the young man built his house in the midst of it.

In the course of time he married and brought his wife to the valley. They had one son who grew into a fine young man. On warm summer evenings the father and his son would climb to the top a tall hill behind the house and look out over the beautiful valley. The only sounds were the evening song of the birds, the breeze in the trees, and the sound of running water. Together they would sit under a big fir tree and watch the sun slowly disappear in the west.

When his father and mother grew old and died the young man continued to live in the family home, and soon he brought his wife to live there, just as his father had done before him. And just as his father had done before him, he only farmed a small portion of the valley and the rest was much the same as it had been when his father had first discovered it.

One day a stranger came up the winding dirt road and stopped to speak with the young farmer. "This is surely a beautiful valley," said the stranger. "Do you own all of it?"

"Yes," he replied. "My parents homesteaded this valley, and it all belongs to me."

"Perhaps," the stranger inquired, "you would sell me a small piece of land upon which I might build a small cabin. I love to fish and this stream appears to have many fish." The young farmer was reluctant to allow anyone to build in his valley, but the money would provide things for his growing family that he was unable to provide. "I will sell you a small piece of land," he replied," but you must only build a small cabin and it must be built at the far end of the valley."

The stranger readily agreed, and soon a small cabin was built at the far end of the valley close to the banks of the river. The stranger had many friends and soon they desired to own a small piece of land in the beautiful valley. The young farmer was reluctant to sell more land to strangers, but his growing family was straining his resources and a few more small cabins could not possibly make any serious changes in the valley. Soon there were several small cabins dotting the valley. On weekends and during the summer the valley was buzzing with the weekend visitors from beyond the valley.

One day a man from the government stopped by the farmers house, and said that due to the increased population in the valley that the narrow dirt road would need to be made wider and paved to meet the needs of the public. It would also be necessary to make some changes in the road, eliminate some of the curves and construct some bridges over the river. The farmer was unhappy about these changes, but his wife and children thought it would make the trip to town easier and faster. The cabin owners favored the plan to upgrade the road, and soon a modern two-lane highway replaced the small winding road that his father had built.

For many years a local logger had cut a few select trees from the forests that covered much of the land. The few trees he cut were never noticeable and he found it unnecessary to create any roads to haul out the few trees he cut.

One day a man from the government came to see the farmer. A big logging company was interested in logging in the valley, and the government was considering a timber sale. "There are many fine trees growing here," said the man, "but many of them are very old, and it would be a good idea to cut them before they are past their prime and of no value. This company has years of experience in logging, and they will be very careful not to damage the land."

The local logger agreed it would be a good idea to thin the timber and to remove some of the older trees. The farmer was dismayed at the thought of more logging, but it would provide jobs and income for the community. Soon the logging trucks were rolling up and down the valley loaded with the tall pines and firs that had previously covered the mountainsides. The logging roads made ugly scars on the hillsides and when it rained the once clear streams ran brown with mud. Before long the only trees that remained were those that were too small to cut and when the logging trucks carried away the last of the big trees the only thing left behind were the scars caused by their roads and a landscape of stumps. The local sawmill closed and many people had to move away because they could no longer make a living.

One day the farmer noticed a man poking around up on the mountain. He represented a big mining company and it appeared that there was gold in the mountain. The farmer was informed that the company had staked a claim on the mineral rights, and the government had sold them the rights to mine the gold. His company would soon start an exploratory mine, and if sufficient gold were found there they would open a mine. They assured the farmer they would be very careful, and they would restore the land when they had extracted the gold. Soon the mining company had located a large amount of gold and slowly they began to claw away at the mountain. The mine brought many new people to the valley and the farmer sold them land for houses. His two sons went to work for the mining company driving the big trucks that were carrying the mountain away piece by piece. When the gold was exhausted the mining company closed and left the valley. The miners left an ugly scar that bled and oozed deadly chemicals into the streams killing the few remaining fish. All those who had enjoyed the money from the mine, including the farmer's sons, had to move on to find jobs. No one came to restore the land the miners had destroyed or the denuded hills left by the loggers. Silt poured down the hills and toxic chemicals leached from the mines until the once beautiful streams were choked with silt and poisoned from mining waste.

The city folks went in search of other beautiful places, abandoning the cabins and summer retreats. Many of the other homes were left empty as the residents moved away to find employment. Weeds choked the once fertile fields and the land was desolate.

One evening the farmer walked to the top of the hill where he and his father had often gone to watch the sun set. The loggers had cut the big fir tree and only its stump remained. Looking out over the valley he could see the deserted homes, the denuded hillsides, and the ruined streams. There were no singing birds and no trees for the wind to whisper through. The air no longer smelled of pine and fir and even the sound of the creeks was hushed and subdued. The sun slowly set in the west through a man-made haze and the farmer sat on the stump of the old fir tree and wept. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

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