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, almost nightly, at the North Forty Bar & Café in the tiny town of Whitewater. So could, it seemed, every inhabitant for miles around, including six-year-olds. “We send the kids here to the bar after school,” explained Tricia LaBrie, whose three young children attended the school a few doors from the North Forty. “If I‟m picking them up and running late, I know where to find them.” On this evening, Halloween, the North Forty was especially convenient, because Whitewater‟s small grid of streets was the only place where kids could trick or treat without driving an hour. So LaBrie and other parents sat drinking beer while their children trolled in the twilight outside. “The kids will be in here bellying up to the bar before long,” she said. LaBrie had grown up on a ranch 24 miles north of Whitewater, and the road from here south to the county seat of Malta had only been paved in recent years. This remoteness allowed for another lax rule when it came to the under-aged: child driving. LaBrie‟s mother, Debby, who had joined us at the bar, said her oldest son began driving to school in seventh grade. “I think he was 13, maybe still 12,” she said. Before long, he was transporting his younger siblings to school as well. “I wasn‟t worried, he was very mature and had been driving trucks on the farm since third grade,” Debby said. The only complication arose when kids later had to do driver‟s ed to receive a Montana license. The nearest town big enough to practice parallel parking was 150 miles away. At around 6pm, the North Forty began to fill with superheroes, fairies, unicorns, and other costume-clad kids, climbing onto barstools to show off their treats. One of their schoolteachers was also present, dressed as a cow and tossing darts with one hand while she clutched a beer in the other. Then ranchers began to join the mob, including a number whose land the XL would pass through. I spoke first to Mike Hammond, father and husband of the two women I‟d just talked with. He was strongly pro-pipeline, a view he said was shared by everyone he knew in conservative Phillips County. This was another respect in which the XL route had been well-plotted. Its passage through the U.S. crossed one of the reddest parts of the nation, rural and overwhelmingly white counties that had voted Republican in the last
presidential election by a margin of about three to one. According to TransCanada, every one of the 539 Montanans whose land the XL would cross had already granted an easement. Hammond was among the first to do so, since his land bordered Canada. “They showed us some maps and literature and pretty much said, „This is what we‟re paying.‟ It sounded good.” He signed without hesitation or negotiation. But the payment, for him, wasn‟t the issue. “We aren‟t looking to get rich individually from this. The whole gist is that we want the pipeline because it will help the tax base, bring more business to places like this bar, and other improvements.” New power lines had already been put in to bring power to a pump station TransCanada would need near here. Roads would be upgraded. And hundreds of workers would come to the county to build the pipeline. “It‟s all jobs, all progress,” he said. We were joined by two landowners who shared similar views, and by a man who played a broader role in the pipeline‟s passage through Montana. Richard Dunbar looked much like his fellow ranchers, a ruddy man wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a Caterpillar cap, sipping Bud Lite from the can as he leaned against the bar. But in addition to ranching, he served as one of three county commissioners, and as president of the Association of Gas and Coal Counties in Montana, which pushed for energy development. He‟d worked closely with TransCanada and traveled to Washington to talk to State Department officials about the pipeline. Dunbar began by laying out the numbers. TransCanada would generate an estimated $5 million in tax revenue for the county, half of which would go to the school district. This was seven times the tax collected from the county‟s current highest payer, another pipeline company, and a very large sum for a county with only 4,000 people (compared to 56,000 cattle). I asked how the county might use this windfall. “We have no big plans to spend,” he said. Like others in this conservative district, his priority was lower property taxes. And there were many other benefits. The pipeline facilities would buy power from the county‟s co-op, and money would flow to countless individuals and businesses. “A guy with a gravel pit, they‟ll want his gravel,” he said. “A lot I own here in Whitewater, if they need it for workers to park campers, I‟ll rent it to them. The spinoffs are going to be unreal.” I posed the argument often made by pipeline skeptics, that almost all the jobs created by the XL would be short-term. At this,
Hammond cut in. “Obama said that too. Well, I‟ve never seen a construction job that‟s permanent.” This prompted a long round of Obama bashing and drew several more men to our circle. I was suddenly in the midst of a John Birch Society meeting, with men railing against “socialistic” health care, the Feds coming after their guns, the idleness of Indians (“Just like the blacks, all they want is to collect a check from the government”), and even the grave menace posed to their property and grass by a tiny number of buffalo being reintroduced to Montana after the bison‟s near extermination a century ago. So I wasn‟t exactly shocked by their response when I steered the conversation to climate change. “Over-hyped,” Dunbar declared. “You want to go back to the Stone Age and use only wind, sun, and water?” Hammond was even more dismissive. “A few years ago, we had more snow and cold than I ever remember. When it‟s 40 below out, global warming doesn‟t sound like such a bad thing.” The risk posed by oil spills was a near-fiction, too. “Go look at a WalMart parking lot,” Hammond said. “Basically covered in the same stuff that‟ll run through that pipeline. It‟s tar, not arsenic.” This led back, somehow, to bashing Obama and his clueless supporters – despite the fact that the president had equivocated on the pipeline and labor unions had come out in support of it. I began to sense that the ranchers‟ passion for the XL had a deeper wellspring than its potential benefits to their county. The pipeline had become a proxy for the larger war between red and blue America. Liberals wanted to stop the XL; therefore these men must defend it to the last ditch. I was reminded of diehard Southerners I‟d met, many of whom clung to the rebel flag as a symbolic “fuck all y‟all.” The setting and issues were different here, but the ranchers seemed to be brandishing the XL like a raised middle finger, thrust in the face of the milquetoast and misguided “liberal elite.” Of which they knew I was a member. It was written all over me: journalist, Jew (hearing my name, one man had asked for confirmation of this), resident of ultra-Democratic Massachusetts. I‟d also challenged a few of their wilder views. Yet none of their venom was aimed at me personally. Quite the opposite. The men kept buying me beers and urging me to stay. Perhaps it was the novelty of having a liberal in their midst. By the time I finally left, to back slaps and beery advice that I watch more Fox News, I decided the North Forty was the most genial and right-wing bar in America.
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