Everything Broken Down
"Our people had an economy and we were prosperous in what we did. Then with the reservation, everything we had was broken down and we were forced into a welfare state."
--Lane Simpson, Professor, Little Big Horn College
One could say the Crow know how to make lemonade out of lemons. They are renowned horse people and ranchers, and the individual landowners, whose land now makes up the vast majority of the reservation, have tried hard to continue that lifestyle. Because of history of land-loss, the Crow tribe owns some 10 percent of the reservation.
The Crow have a short history of coal strip mining--maybe 50 years. Not so long in Crow history, but a long time in an inefficient fossil-fuel economy. Westmoreland Resource's Absaloka mine opened in 1974. It produces about 6 million tons of coal a year and employs about 80 people. That deal is for around 17 cents a ton.
Westmoreland has been the Crow Nation's most significant private partner for over 39 years, and the tribe has received almost 50 percent of its general operating income from this mine. Tribal members receive a per-capita payment from the royalties, which, in the hardship of a cash economy, pays many bills.
Then there is Colstrip, the power-plant complex on the border of Crow--that produces around 2,800 mw of power for largely west coast utilities and also employs some Crows. Some 50 percent of the adult population is still listed as unemployed, and the Crow need an economy that will support their people and the generations ahead. It is possible that the Crow may have become cornered into an economic future that, it turns out, will affect far more than just them.
Enter Cloud Peak
In 2013, the Crow Nation signed an agreement with Cloud Peak to develop 1.4 billion tons in the Big Metal Mine, named after a legendary Crow. The company says it could take five years to develop a mine that would produce up to 10 million tons of coal annually, and other mines are possible in the leased areas. Cloud Peak has paid the tribe $3.75 million so far.
The Crow nation may earn over those first five years. The Big Metal Mine, however, may not be a big money-maker. Coal is not as lucrative as it once was, largely because it is a dirty fuel. According to the Energy Information Administration, 175 coal plants will be shut down in the next few years in the U.S.
So the target is China . Cloud Peak has pending agreements to ship more than 20 million tons of coal annually through two proposed ports on the West Coast.
Back to the Lummi
The Gateway Pacific Coal terminal would be the largest such terminal on Turtle Island's west coast. This is what large means: an 1100-acre terminal, moving up to 54 million metric tons of coal per year, using cargo ships up to 1,000 feet long. Those ships would weigh maybe 250,000 tons and carry up to 500,000 gallons of oil. Each tanker would take up to six miles to stop.
All of that would cross Lummi shellfish areas, the most productive shellfish territory in the region. "It would significantly degrade an already fragile and vulnerable crab, herring, and salmon fishery, dealing a devastating blow to the economy of the fisher community," the tribe said in a statement.
The Lummi community has been outspoken in its opposition, and taken their concerns back to the Powder River basin, although not yet to the Crow Tribe. Jewell Praying Wolf James is a tribal leader and master carver of the Lummi Nation. "There's gonna be a lot of mercury and arsenic blowing off those coal trains," James says. "That is going to go into a lot of communities and all the rivers between here and the Powder River Basin."