By now the demise of the Otter Creek mine is old news.

I thought I should write something about it but I didn’t. Talking to a good friend a couple weeks later, I told him that it felt weird to write, photograph, organize and spend a significant amount of my life and emotional energy on something and then let the end of it pass without a note or retrospective. He told me that I’ve already written everything I needed to. He was right. I was content to sit back and just let myself be happy that it was over.

And yet there will probably always be something more to say because the struggle in southeast Montana taught me bigger lessons about community, about politics and about people.


In March of 2010, when the state of Montana leased the coal tracts to Arch Coal, most people were convinced there was nothing to be done. Once the coal was leased the issuing of permits seemed inevitable. As we all know government agencies aren’t in the business of denying permits. However, during those six years, the Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad never received a permit, not one.

Sometimes the distances between southeast Montana and Helena felt insurmountable. I’m not sure the people who held the fate of the valleys in their hands really understood that the core resistance to this project didn’t stem from an attachment to a certain political ideology or from outside environmental groups.

The resistance came from local people who held wildly different political views but all cared deeply about a place. That is why we won. It's that simple. Hundreds of people, who cared nothing about credit, attention, money from donors or environmental politics, spent their time and their own money to involve themselves in our democracy. You can’t sustain six years of grassroots opposition and public involvement if the people don’t truly care about the place they are trying to protect.

For many in Helena and Washington D.C., southeast Montana and the proposed mine were abstractions. They weren’t personally connected to the place so it made the Otter Creek valley just words on a map, a place for mining. That bureaucratic abstractness made it hard for them to understand or care that the issue was the very real destruction of a real place that would impact real people.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the Livingston Enterprise ran an editorial last year entitled, “There is a place for mines but it isn’t on Emigrant Peak.”

That phrase lodged itself in my brain; a place for mines. I’m not politically naive. I recognize the usefulness of the tactic, but, as someone who works and lives in an area that others think is a place for mining, I also recognize the enormous damage that it does. The sentiment was echoed in a recent opinion piece about the proposed gold mine exploration near Yellowstone National Park by a local business leader. It reads,

“We are not opposed to mining in Montana, but we do recognize that some places are just not appropriate.”

Lest we forget how the Otter Creek mine happened. In order to protect the greater Yellowstone ecosystem from a gold mine, taxpayers paid a Canadian gold mining corporation $65 million dollars and federal lands in other places to give up their mining claims around Yellowstone National Park. Later, taxpayers spent another $8 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to finish the purchasing of the land from a private owner. To appease the Governor of Montana, who argued we were losing out on revenue and job creation, the federal government transferred the Otter Creek coal tracts to the state of Montana. Although there were those that spoke out against the trade and tried to stop it, it still happened. Not many people were willing to spend political capital on the Otter Creek valley, a place for mining.

Otter Creek Valley

What could we accomplish together if we stopped treating our working landscapes differently than, what Wendell Barry calls, the ‘gated communities of the wild?’ We must recognize the value of protecting our working landscapes, like the Otter Creek valley, as much as we recognize the value of protecting the great wild lands of our state, like the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The places that we love, and we all have them, are connected. Water, air and wildlife don’t recognize human created boundaries.

We must guard against, in our actions and our words, myopic strategies that have real consequences for other places. Are there communities “better suited” to large scale industrialization and mining? Who gets to make that determination? How will this new fight to protect the greater Yellowstone ecosystem end?

Otter Creek Valley. September 2013. Totem Pole Journey.

Rarely do local communities have a choice in the matter, rather it is imposed upon them by corporations and governments. Large scale industrialization, and the associated environmental and human health consequences, usually happens in places that don’t have the resources, political and financial, to fight back. This is the type of thinking that leads to sacrifice areas.

Ground zero is the in the eye of the beholder. Some projects are more disastrous than others depending on your position in time and place, both geographically and financially.

We don’t gain anything by breaking up Montana into places for mining and places for protecting. That doesn't build community. That doesn't build power.

Lucky for all Montanans, the people working to protect the Otter Creek and Tongue River valleys succeeded by traversing that space that exists between communities, cultures, political ideologies and landscapes.

They made a place for protecting.


Arch Coal LogoBy now you know that Arch Coal declared bankruptcy. We all knew it was coming. At first I didn't think there was much to say about it beyond what the news articles were reporting but then I read Tom Lutey's recent story in the Gazette and I think it is worth addressing the comments by John Tubbs, the director of Montana's Department of Natural Resources (DNRC). Tubbs told Lutey that it was unlikely that Arch Coal would let Otter Creek collapse given the amount of money they had invested so far.

“If I were the court, I probably wouldn’t let them abandon it,” Tubbs said. "There’s value to the Otter Creek development that for the sake of its shareholders and creditors Arch Coal shouldn't walk away from," he said.

Tubbs isn't a bankruptcy court - which I think we can all be grateful for - and unless it is a personal hobby of his study the bankruptcy proceedings of coal companies, he has no idea what is in the best interest of Arch Coal's shareholders and creditors. Furthermore, Tubbs works for the public. He should be commenting on what is in the best interest of the people in the state of Montana, not Arch Coal. Tubbs could have commented on some facts about Arch Coal and their bankruptcy. Here are some:
  1. Arch Coal owes the state of Montana $67,000 for work completed on the draft environmental impact statement.
  2. Arch Coal has $450 million dollars in reclamation liabilities across the country. This is a conservative estimate.
  3. According to University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Arch Coal would need almost $1 billion dollars to construct a greenfield mine in the Otter Creek Valley, not to mention their share of the $400 million dollar cost to build the Tongue River Railroad.
  4. The Tongue River Railroad Company has asked the Surface Transportation Board to stop all work on the permitting and environmental impact statement process.
  5. Arch Coal is already trying to reduce their reclamation liability under the bankruptcy proceeding. Arch asked a bankruptcy judge on Monday to put aside $75 million for future clean-up costs far less than the $450 million that regulators foresee needing.
  6. As Arch Coal was hemorrhaging money, their CEO's compensation package almost doubled. He made $7.3 million in 2014, double what he made in 2013.
Tubbs seems to be saying that an enormously expensive potential coal mine with a bankrupt owner, no market, no permit and massive local opposition, that is tied to a railroad company who has voluntarily ceased all work on the project, is worth something to someone. No reasonable person would come to the conclusion that the Otter Creek mine is a sound investment based on, what I like to call, facts. If Director Tubbs really believes that the Otter Creek coal mine and Tongue River Railroad is a bright spot for Arch Coal's investors then they are in bigger trouble than anyone thought. BONOGOFSKY-5523-150608          
People who need to catch a goat, that's who. Which, luckily, I can help you with. I've exchanged many emails with frustrated goat owners from all over the country who can't catch their goats. On the more serious side of things, when I started East of Billings, I wasn’t sure that people would read it. I did it mostly out of frustration. There was so much happening in southeast Montana that wasn’t getting covered by the newspapers and I wanted a better way to communicate with people who live there who wanted to stay informed about the proposed Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad. Occasionally, I’d write about the goats because the goats are fun to write about. BONOGOFSKY-7587 To my surprise people started reading it. In the beginning, I didn’t spend much time on each blog and you can tell by the number of grammatical errors in the early ones. I’ve resisted the urge to go back and rewrite them mostly because I don't have time. As more of you started to subscribe to and read the blog I felt increasing pressure to be a better writer. Thank you, I think. Now, I spend way more time making sure I don’t have grammatical mistakes which still slip by since I don’t have an editor. And sometimes I just don't give a shit if I start a sentence with "because" or "and" and I'm not supposed to. It never fails that the minute I hit the Publish button, I find some major mistake or I look at what I wrote and see all the unnecessary commas. So if you see mistakes, unless you are offering to be my editor, please be forgiving. I try, I really do. I’ve had people tell me I swear too much and people tell me that they like it. Those of you who don’t like it can go to hell. Just kidding. But, I use expletives occasionally. I am my father’s daughter. There is nothing to be done about it although I have compromised and toned it down a bit. A couple hundred of you subscribe to my blog which means every time I post something, you get an email with the blog in the text. I wonder if some of you have been completely taken off guard by the range of topics. I imagine some of you signed up because you wanted to keep up to date on the Otter Creek mine and then you got an email with the subject line Goat Pimp. Or you signed up because you like reading about the goats and end up with an email discussing some boring administrative process concerning an air quality permit. There have been stretches of time that I post nothing. I'm not very consistent. This is mostly because inspiration has left me or I’m trying to focus on the book I’m writing not because there isn’t anything to write about. There is always something to write about. During those dry spells you stop coming to my site. When I’m posting content frequently, between 400 and 600 of you visit the page per day. The most I have ever had to the site in one day was close to 8,000. I don't know if that is high or low for a blog like mine but I'm happy with it. Who are you?  I know some things about you from my fairly elementary understanding of my website stats on Google Analytics, from the emails I get from you and the comments you post. Most of you live in Montana but I have readers from all over the country and the world depending on the topic. A majority of you get to my site through Facebook. Then, in ascending order, you get here from internet searches,, Twitter,, and Goats on hay balesThe top search term that gets people to east of Billings is some variation of, “How do I catch a goat.”  The amount of you that ask this question to Google is troubling to me. It makes me think that there are a lot of people with goats who maybe shouldn’t have goats. I’m working on a blog right now called, How To Catch A Goat: Redux with more detailed information on how to actually catch a goat; less humor, more direction. The most odd search term that led a person to my site was “Pimps in Billings, Montana.” I’m certain they weren’t looking for a goat buck to breed their does. There was one search term that should never, ever be repeated involving a goat. It would make you question humanity. Seventy-eight percent of you are in the United States. The top city of readers is Billings at 9% and then, in ascending order, Helena, Bozeman, Missoula, Provo (Who are you folks in Provo?), Miles City, Denver, New York, Glendive, Livingston, Forsyth, Portland, Chicago, Dallas, Ashland, Gillette, San Francisco, Sidney, Nanterre (France), Kalispell, Lame Deer, Colstrip, Butte, Great Falls, Broadus and Ashland. After that, geographical locations just devolve into smaller percentages from cities all over Montana, the rest of the country and the world. Australia is the next country with the highest percentage of readers. There is a person that reads my posts from The Hague. Whoever you are, get in touch. I want to know why east of Billings is of interest to you. Fifty percent of you are Mac users. In terms of political affiliations, as far as I can tell from the emails I've received from you, you run the gamut from politically conservative to politically liberal and everywhere in between. I'm hoping that is a reflection of the fact that I criticize both Republicans and Democrats and try not use hyperbole, talking points or political rhetoric in my blogs. Your favorite posts The all-time most read blog on the site was about the billionaire Wilks brothers buying a large ranch in southeast Montana and taking it out of block management. People continue to read it every day from all over the country. That particular piece has been read over 17,000 times since I posted it on December of 2014. The next most popular post was about the Northwestern Energy listing Colstrip as a $340 million dollar liability in their books. I find that odd since it was just a summary of a Billings Gazette article stating the same thing. The third most popular post was A Citizen’s Guide to Oil Spills: A message to the residents of Glendive, which I wrote after the January 2015 oil spill on the Yellowstone River. Perfecto. The Goat Buck. After that, the goats take over with How to Catch A Goat, Goat Pimp, and Goats Gone Wild. Rounding out the top 10 was the amazing video of southeast Montana put together by photographer and filmmaker Colin Ruggiero, the blog about the charlatans who wanted to build another oil refinery in Billings, my reflections about my father’s death and finally, my thoughts on why Ryan Zinke banned me from his Facebook page and Twitter. You’ll have to read it to find out. When I write about politics such as the recent blog about Duane Ankney's, I'm sorry I mean Governor Bullock's, Clean Power Plan, most of the readers are in Helena, Missoula and Bozeman. When I write about the Otter Creek mine or Tongue River Railroad, most of the readers are from southeast Montana and Helena. The two that were the hardest to write were And Yet We Have Changed, about my father and One Nation Under Dog, about  my dog Maggie. After two years of writing I can say that it takes a lot of time, I’m mostly happy with what I’ve written and I have the best blog followers. You all are respectful, considerate and amazingly supportive of my efforts. I wouldn’t and couldn’t do it without you. (I also couldn't do it without Mike, who I run my ideas by and who reads almost everything I write for content and lets me know if I'm way off the mark or if I'm being too sarcastic, which I have a tendency to be.) Sometimes sarcasm is funny and sometimes it is just mean. I don't want to be mean. Lena and AlexisSo, thank you. You can follow my photography on Facebook here or on Instagram by searching for alexis_bonogofsky.    
My nephew learned the pledge of allegiance when he was four. A dutiful aunt, I listened to him recite it and then heard, “one nation, under dog, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” “Can you repeat that please?” I asked. “One nation, under dog, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I imagined a bronzed dog the size of the Statue of Liberty in the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building. Of course, I told everyone about it, shared a video of him on Facebook and made him recite it every time I saw him. His new take on an old pledge faded from memory as he said other funny things, that is, until the day before New Year’s Eve when a friend from Helena lost his dog in downtown Billings. Read More
Duane Ankney It's nice to see Governor Bullock delegating some big responsibilities. It's an election year, you know. He must be very busy. And, in terms of addressing climate change policy for our state, I couldn't think of a better person to hand that over to than Senator Duane Ankney. Bullock's advisory council line-up is great if the goal is to ensure that the federal government will have to step in to mandate how we will meet our obligations for carbon reduction under the Clean Power Plan. Or maybe he just wants to get a group of people together for pointless meetings since, as far as I can see, very few of the council members have an interest in addressing climate change. Here is my own analysis of the breakdown of the appointees. Out of 27 members, 18 of them are either directly employed by the coal industry or worked in the coal industry at some point, work for a utility with a investment in the Colstrip units, have publicly stated their opposition to the Clean Power Plan or are fossil fuel development consultants. That is two-thirds of the advisory council. Four are women. One is from the renewable energy industry. One is Native American. One is from an agricultural group. One is under the age of 40. Let's start with the age problem. Besides Diego Rivas, who is 34, as far as I can tell, almost all of the other appointees are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. To be completely blunt, this is a generation that will not be around to deal with many of the extreme impacts from climate change. I'm not even sure half them believe climate change is happening. How are they supposed to come up with a plan to address something they don't think is real? I'm not saying that industry, utilities and labor shouldn't be represented on the council. They deserve to be there, they have a right to be there and their input is important. But two-thirds of the council? Seriously? As a woman and someone who knows many qualified and smart Montana women in the energy and climate change field it is shocking to see that we make up a meager 14% of the council with only two who live in Montana. Two of those women are lawyers from utilities in Washington and Oregon that are invested in Colstrip. This from the first state to send a woman to Congress. It's offensive. Two bright spots for me in the list are Rex Rogers, from IBEW in Colstrip, who had a very thoughtful op-ed in the Great Falls Tribune on Monday and Kathy Hadley who has has been at the helm of the National Center for Appropriate Technology for 18 years and is serving as president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. These are people who want to solve problems. I think if the Governor put them in a room they could come up with a great plan for the state of Montana. I'm not exactly sure the political calculus Bullock and his advisors did. Do they want the feds to come in and create Montana's plan so they can act like it is the big bad federal government telling us what to do and hope he doesn't get punished in the voting booth? Possibly. He is going to receive a recommendation from this group, one that will assuredly not meet the EPA standards, and then he will have to accept or reject it. Everyone is impacted by climate change not just the people that work in the fossil fuel industry. Governor Bullock knows what the right thing to do is and instead he is playing a political game. We had a chance to come up with a Montana solution but it looks like politics wins again. In times like these, I remember my favorite quote by the great American philosopher John Dewey,

" There is nothing perplexing or even discouraging in the spectacle of the stupidities and errors of political behavior. The facts which give rise to the spectacle should, however, protect us from the illusion of expecting extraordinary change to follow from a mere change in political agencies and methods. Such a change sometimes occurs, but when it does, it is because social conditions, in generating a new public, have prepared the way for it."

We have work to do folks.
  • Updated Wednesday January 7, 2016:  I previously noted that there was an attorney from Bozeman who seemed to have recently moved there. I have since found out that Britt Ide is a 5th generation Montanan.
The Interim Clean Power Plan Advisory Council members are: Senator Duane Ankney, Colstrip, MT – Senate District 20, member of the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee, Lead Plaintiff on the lawsuit against the power plant for its leaking ash ponds. Carl Borquist, Bozeman, MT – Founder and President, Absaroka Energy, LLC. Renewable energy representative. Hon. Kirk Bushman, Billings, MT – Montana Public Service Commission member representing District 2 Chris Christiaens, Great Falls MT – Legislative and Project Specialist, Montana Farmers Union Gordon Criswell, Hysham, MT – Director, Environmental & Engineering Compliance, Talen Montana (Formerly PPL Montana) Al Ekblad, Great Falls, MT – Executive Secretary of the Montana State AFL-CIO Gary Forrester, Billings, MT – Government Affairs, MDU Resources, Inc. Dave Galt, Helena, MT – private consultant specializing in energy and natural resources issues, immediate past Executive Director of the Montana Petroleum Association Paul Gatzmeier, Billings, MT – a small business owner with extensive natural resource and energy background - Consultant to develop energy Kathy Hadley, Deer Lodge, MT – Executive Director of the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and President of the Montana Wildlife Federation Doug Hardy, Great Falls, MT – General Manager of the Central Montana Electric Power Cooperative Britt Ide, Bozeman, MT –  Principal, Ide Law & Strategy, LLC, private practice attorney specializing in energy, consensus-building, and innovation. Senator Jim Keane, Butte, MT – Senate District 38, member of the Environmental Quality Council Lorna Luebbe, Bellevue, WA – Director of Environmental Services/Assistant General Counsel, Puget Sound Energy, Inc. Chuck Magraw, Helena, MT – private practice attorney specializing in energy issues Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, Crow Agency, MT – Chairman, Crow Tribe Jim Orchard, Broomfield, CO – Senior Vice President, Marketing & Government Affairs, Cloud Peak Energy Bill Pascoe, Absarokee, MT – Principal, Pascoe Energy Consulting, representing a broad diversity of clients in energy matters. Senator Mike Phillips, Bozeman, MT – Senate District 31, member of the Environmental Quality Council Sunny Radcliffe, Portland, OR – Director, Governmental Affairs & Environmental Policy, Portland General Electric Diego Rivas, Helena, MT – Senior Policy Associate, Northwest Energy Coalition John Roeber, Butte, MT – Officer President, Montana State Building & Construction Trades Council, and International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Rex Rogers, Colstrip, MT – IBEW Local 1638 Business Manager Tom Schneider, Helena, MT – Private consultant specializing in energy issues, former three-term Montana Public Service Commissioner (2003-2006, 1977-1984) Darrell Soyars, Spokane, WA – Manager of Corporate Environmental Compliance, Avista Corporation Pat Sweeney, Billings, MT – Senior Advisor to the Western Organization of Resource Councils William Thompson, Butte, MT – Senior Technical Advisor/Engineer, NorthWestern Energy
You asked for a 2016 east of Billings calendar and you got it! The calendar is 8.5 x 11 in, full-color with thirteen of my favorite (and hopefully your favorite) photographs of southeast Montana. $15.00/calendar for one and the price drops as you order more + $5.75 shipping. The cover shot is the banner photo above.

Important Information: I will not have the calendars until the week of December 8th (they are being printed right now). The earliest you will get them is sometime during the the week of December 13. I'm doing this all myself so please be patient with me!

There are three ways to order:

1.  Paypal:

If you would like to pay by credit card online please use the drop down menu below to choose the number of calendars you would like to buy, add any additional comments and click on Add to Cart and follow the instructions provided by Paypal.
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Additional comments:

2. If you would like to pay by check:

Please send me an email at with the number of calendars you would like to order. I will email you back an invoice and an address to send the check to. Once I receive the check, I will immediately send you your calendar as soon as I get them.

3.  If you know me personally and we see each other often:

Send me an email and tell me how many you'd like. You can pick them up at the farm or I'll drop them off next time I'm out your way and we can settle up then.    
Today,  Arch Coal submitted a letter to the Surface Transportation Board asking that the agency suspend all work on the Tongue River Railroad permit and environmental impact statement.* Arch Coal and Burlington Northern Santa Fe are blaming the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for being slow in issuing a permit for the proposed Otter Creek mine. I find that claim to be ridiculous considering Arch Coal has consistently left out entire required sections of their permit application and done shoddy work on what they did submit. According to the Associated Press, the company stated that they hoped production at the Otter Creek mine might start by January 2017, but "with mine permitting delays and near-term market weakness, that timeline now appears unachievable." It was always unachievable. BNSF spokesperson Matt Jones told the AP that,
"We have not withdrawn the application," Jones said. "The TRRC has simply submitted a request to suspend the permitting process due largely to the ongoing delays to the mine permitting process."
By ongoing delays I think he means that Arch Coal is on its way to bankruptcy, coal markets are tanking and, oh yeah, there is massive community opposition to the railroad and coal mine. Bye, bye Tongue River Railroad.