Fall in the Valley
I've never been in a more beautiful place than the Flathead Valley in the fall. We decided to dig in on this trip and spent several weeks trying to learn more about the conflicts in the Valley and see how they played out in local politics. We also tried to learn more about local environmentalists.
Left: Blake McHugh shooting on location in Montana
Growth in the county was a big issue in the local elections. Columbia Falls Mayor Gary Hall, one of the civic leaders who we had met at a Hands Against Hate event, was in a relatively tight race against Democratic contender Karen Reeves for one of only three county commission seats in the Flathead. Hall and Reeves had agreed to keep their campaigns clean and not to sling mud. We witnessed that commitment to civility when we followed them to be interviewed by Wendy Ostrom Price, another radio talk show host in the Valley. However, after winning the Republican primary, Gary Hall was suddenly being called a Green Nazi in some local advertising. The man Gary Hall beat in the primary was incumbent Commissioner Dale Williams. Williams had a lot of support from Stokes and his listeners on KGEZ and was running as a write-in candidate.
We went to a candidates' debate sponsored by Montanans for Multiple Use, held at the fairgrounds in Kalispell. Montanans for Multiple Use is a "wise use" organization, pushing for fewer regulations on logging and recreation on national lands. The group is also a loud political voice in the Valley.
Write-in candidate Dale Williams gained the most applause at the meeting, especially with his line, "The snowmobile accord is an abomination." He was referring to an attempt by the snowmobilers, environmentalists and the forest service to reach an agreement on use of the trails in sensitive wildlife areas. MFMU leaders seemed particularly angry about the snowmobile accord.
The only female candidate at the meeting was Donna Maddux, who was running for re-election as the superintendent of Flathead County schools. Given the animosity toward school leaders in the area, I thought she was pretty brave to be there. There were a lot of guys with folded arms and hard looks as she spoke. There wasn't much applause when she finished, but no one booed. We would meet Donna again later several times. As I talked to her more, it became clear that reaching out to a wide variety of constituencies was important to her.
I was surprised to see alleged Project 7 member Larry Chance Chezem on the speakers list. He was running for sheriff against long-time incumbent Jim Dupont. I had spoken with Dupont on several occasions. He flat out refused to engage in any debate with Chezem. Dupont seemed like a conservative straight-up cop who was very upset by the Project 7 revelations. He took the threat seriously and seemed adamant about disassociating the community with Project 7 activity. Although he won hands down, alleged Project 7 member Larry Chezem gained 2600 votes in the local election. (Find out more in the Film Update.)
Ever since John Stokes' Green Swastika rally in the spring, the anti-environmental rhetoric in the Valley seemed to be heating up. We heard the name Keith Hammer over and over. He was characterized by many as a "radical environmentalist." I wasn't sure what that meant, but people seemed to really hate this guy. I knew we should interview him, but I didn't want to get too heavily into environmental politics. I kept telling people I was doing a story about how the community was dealing with their differences, not environmental issues.
On the other hand, we pursued the story because I was deeply disturbed at the personal attacks, labeling and name calling in the community, especially against local environmentalists in the Swan View Coalition like Keith Hammer, and Cesar Hernandez from the Montana Wilderness Association.
Brenda Kitterman also told us about a local conservationist who was upset with John Stokes' radio show and encouraging people to respond. We went to meet Mike Raiman and his sons, who operated a tree service together in the Valley. Bob Raiman had been a computer engineer in Silicon Valley and Steve Raiman was a trained biologist. Both of them decided to return to Montana to learn what they could from their dad about trees and the forest. The three of them seemed happy about the business they had forged together. But the tension in the family about Mike Raiman's activism came to the surface the first time we met them.
In our first interview with Mike Raiman, we began to get a deeper picture of the intimidation felt by environmentalists. While we were talking, Mike took a piece of paper out of his wallet and showed it to me. He told me that a year before the Project 7 revelations, he had gone into a shop to talk to an acquaintance and the guy had pulled a gun on him. Mike was able to de-escalate the confrontation, and it turned into more of a conversation. The man apparently told Mike he was on a "hit list" along with Keith Hammer and others. The man then offered Mike a list of names of people "to watch out for." That was the paper that Mike showed me during our interview, and when I looked at the names, I saw that Project 7 leader David Burgert was among them. In our interview that day, Mike told me that when the Project 7 weapons were found and Burgert was arrested, he felt certain that the threats he had heard against his own family and his friend Keith Hammer were true.
Mike Raiman also said that he was concerned about the so-called "accidental" death of a local environmentalist and open Lesbian named Tary Mocabee. She had drowned in a very shallow creek near her home, and there wasn't a clear explanation why. Mike said he was skeptical because Tary was an active, healthy woman. "The only time I met her was at a rally in Kalispell, she was walking down the street on both her hands. She was like a gymnast. No way she could have drowned in that little creek."
It seems like its tough to be different in Northwest Montana. We met few, if any, openly gay people in the Valley. The first time we traveled to the area, we interviewed a lesbian couple whose home had been set on fire in Missoula, Montana.
In Kalispell, when we did go to interview an open lesbian, she answered the door with a holstered gun on her hip. We had walked into places like Packer's Roost on the road to Glacier Park where guys openly packed weapons, but I'd never seen someone armed at the front door of their home.
When I first heard about Tary's death, I thought people were understandably nervous, but maybe a little paranoid. People drown all the time. Because of the atmosphere, and what I'd seen in some reports about her death, we decided to look into it further. Carolyn Beecher, Tary's friend, agreed to talk to us on the property where Tary lived and died. Our visit there, and a few things Carolyn said in the interview, sent chills up my spine. The story around Tary Mocabee's death needs to be the subject of another inquiry, but it remains an old wound, left inadequately tended. Every time I probed a little deeper, new complications emerged. It may well have been an accident, but the unanswered questions around her drowning contributed to a sense of tension in a place where difference and disagreement can be threatening.
When we finally met Keith Hammer, he was not the person I was expecting. I don't know what I had in my head -- a Hunter S. Thompson type or an eco-warrior, maybe. Certainly someone really outside the mainstream. After ten minutes of conversation, I realized I had also fallen into the trap of rumor and labeling that I was trying to document, even though I was speaking to someone that I knew needed to be "protected." I had heard this guy called an "extremist radical" so many times that I had started to picture him in a stereotypical way. Keith Hammer is an effective advocate for the environment who cares as deeply about the Valley as any of the people we spoke to. He has angered many people, but he works within the rule of law. People hate him for that.
I knew then that part of my job with this film was to try to present the deeply human part of everyone who spoke to us, regardless of their politics.
We may be passionate, and have strong disagreements, but when talk of violence against people because of their political beliefs starts to become normalized, we're in trouble. Labels and rumors, anger and fear can all lead us down a dangerous path. I'm so happy to have met many people in the Flathead Valley who are heading in a different, more hopeful direction.