34 minutes, 2005, miniDV

“Powder River Country”
by Steve Fesenmaier West Virginia Library Commission
March 25, 2005

One of the best environmental film companies anywhere is High Plains Films, located in Missoula, Montana. Doug Hawes-Davis started making films in 1992, coming to West Virginia to document the battle against a proposed pulp mill in one of his first films “Green Rolling Hills” (1995) His company established a graduate internship at The University of Montana and Marianne Zugel, the director of this film, is the first person to receive it. It’s heartbreaking and poignant, showing in a very personal way what the Bush Administration’s War on the Environment means on a daily basis.

I am used to watching films by Robert Gates, Appalshop, and other filmmakers showing the destruction of coal mining. First it was strip mining, now mountaintop removal. This film shows a different landscape - one that holds even larger deposits of coal than Appalachia. Thankfully, I didn’t have to watch those same scenes of explosions, floods, giant trucks, and denuded hills. Tragically, the results of pumping gas out of the land may be just as devastating in the long run because all of the water is being destroyed just as badly by these operations as MTR destroys the streams of Appalachia.

I chose Mr. Hawes-Davis’ new film, LIBBY, MONTANA as one of the best films of 2004. Like Mr. Hawes-Davis, Zugel makes sure that the technical details and the landscape don’t overwhelm the human stories. She doesn’t waste her time shooting too many state and federal bureaucrats, letting the story develop in the 34 minutes it takes to introduce us to the horror stories.

Here is their posted description of the film
“From the peaks of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains stretching northeast over eleven million acres, the Powder River Basin is a landscape of rolling hills, big skies, and subtle beauty, rich in the history of our American roots. Native Americans lived here for centuries. Custer made his last stand here. For nearly 200 years, generations of homesteaders have ranched and farmed these high plains. The rush for a new source of natural gas is transforming the remote region and the future of agriculture is uncertain. This gives some of the history of the area, but as you will see when you watch the film, it doesn’t describe the vast settling ponds that are growing daily. It doesn’t tell you about the wells that are drying up, leaving the pioneers who live there thirsty, along with their animals. It is a much prettier devastating than the one caused by uncontrolled mining, but not any less lethal to the people who live there.”

I have to recall Mimi Pickering’s two films about the Buffalo Creek Flood that took place in West Virginia. As a native of Minnesota, I knew about floods - floods that were caused by snow and rain. I did not know about floods caused by people until I saw those two films. Appalshop is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and wants to show those two films in particular. That event took place on February 26, 1972, causing 125 people to lose their lives and 4,000 people to become homeless after an event that just took minutes. This new film from Montana is about another disaster caused by people that could be avoided. Hopefully no lives will be lost, but the people may be driven from their homes just as the residents of Buffalo Creek were in slow motion.

Hopefully people at the Montana statehouse and US legislators in Congress will get to see this film just as they once saw Robert Gates’ film on strip mining IN MEMORY OF THE LAND AND PEOPLE (1977).  Nothing seems to affect people like watching films about tragedies, showing the land and the people.