Why showing up is the most important thing you can do
On Monday representatives from the Surface Transportation Board came to Ashland, Montana to host a public meeting about the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the proposed Tongue River Railroad. They call it a meeting. I call it a box they can check off when they go back to Washington D.C. The word meeting implies a coming together of people to have a discussion. They make it very clear they won't be answering any questions from the public. The STB and ICF staff read a pre-written script that was approved by their attorneys. They do not deviate one word. They tell us that we have three minutes to talk. As Clint McRae said in his testimony, "you've been hanging this over our heads for thirty years and you give me three minutes?" The Billings Gazette did a great job of covering the hearing. Over 100 people showed up including ranchers, Northern Cheyenne tribal citizens, and members of the Amish community that live along the Tongue River. There were two security guards and a sheriff present when we walked in. A security guard from St. Labre told us that we weren't allowed to pass out t-shirts in the parking lot of the school because it was private property. He said if I continued to do so, I would be removed. Right. Kicked out of a public meeting organized by the federal government because I was giving people t-shirts when they asked for them. I'll save the rest of that story for another day. The STB and ICF staff were professional. They sat in the front of the room with impassive faces as people talked about their lives, their cultures and their community. I didn't see any emotion cross their faces. Hank Coffin read the preamble to the Montana constitution. Alaina Buffalo Spirit and Otto Braided Hair gave all of their testimony in the Northern Cheyenne language. Wally Mcrae said that even though the railroad owners weren't in the room, they were definitely being represented, " by people from Washington, D.C., who have no concept whatsoever of Northern Cheyenne culture, of Amish culture, of the code of the west.” Vanessa Braided Hair, when told she needed to stop speaking, said they were on are on her people's reservation and they will listen to her. Joey Littlebird invited the STB Board to come night fishing with him and learn about the land and the people. Talk to us, he said, you've never sat down and talked to us. I could give you a play by play of the meeting but you can watch it for yourself here. What is important about Monday evening isn't what happened in the public meeting, it's what happened after the meeting. Northern Cheyenne tribal members, Amish community members, local ranchers and town people from Ashland all sat down on pickup tailgates and ate burgers and laughed and talked together. I'm not sure I can adequately convey that moment in time. The sun was going down. The day had finally cooled off. There were mosquitos eating us alive but everyone was smiling, hugging and laughing. It is those moments when you realize why we go to these public meetings. It isn't because we actually think that the government is listening to us and truly cares about what we think. We do it because other people show up. We do it for our friends. We do it for our families. We do it for the people who can't be there. We do it because the Tongue River is the lifeblood of southeastern Montana and deserves our time. The Tongue River Railroad isn't about coal. It is about a community of people who come from different cultures and different backgrounds that love a place and will do whatever it takes to protect it together. We aren't fighting a coal company. We are protecting a valley. This is why we will win. Join us at the Tribal Building in Lame Deer on Thursday at 5:00 p.m. for another public hearing on the proposed Tongue River Railroad. I promise you won't regret it. Banner photo copyright Colin Ruggiero.