The Billings Outpost

GMOs: Red flags and red herrings abound



In case you missed it, there has been an interesting discussion about genetically modified food over at It began with a series of posts by Nathaneal Johnson in which he dissected, in impressively neutral and skeptical fashion, most of the arguments for or against GM food that you’ve ever heard.

Johnson’s posts managed to draw attention and respect from voices on all sides of the issue. By way of his quest to take no side, he managed to get on a lot of people’s good sides. The comment section was, at times, somewhat civil and well-behaved, no minor feat among GMO pundits, and there were even examples of constructive debate. 

After six months of researching and posting, Johnson came to the conclusion that GMOs are neither as scary as many GM food haters claim, nor as world-saving as claimed by supporters of GM food. In an attempt to put the discussion to bed, he wrote, in what he thought was the series’ capstone, “The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.”

All of the sudden, folks respectfully had beef with Johnson. Two responses were published at Grist, one by Mother Jones food columnist (and former Grist food writer) Tom Philpott, a longtime critic of GM food, and one by Ramez Naam, author of “The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.”

Philpott argued that GMOs do matter, because they are a load-bearing pillar of a misguided agriculture system, while Naam wrote that GMOs matter because they can, and already do, benefit people and the environment, not just corporations and factory farms. According to Philpott, most GMOs have been used to sell pesticides and herbicides. He called the vast majority of GMOs currently on the market “an appendage of the pesticide industry, which has dominated the technology from the start.”

Naam, who supports GM food, and also a proponent of “sensible labeling,” wrote that GM crops have more impact in poor countries than rich ones. He discussed genetically modified Bt cotton in India as an example of how GM crops can help boost the income of small farmers.

While Philpott and Naam inhabit opposing camps on the GMO issue, their arguments are not mutually exclusive. If Naam is right and GM crops can be a force for good, it does not derail Philpott’s assessment of how GMOs have impacted agriculture to date. If Philpott is right, and GMOs have done little more than boost yields of corn and soy while selling more chemicals, it doesn’t mean that the technology shows no promise.

If they’re both right, their arguments could define an important chunk of common ground between both sides, on the playing field that Johnson leveled.

My take on all this is that the conversation can continue, respectfully and productively, if some basic compromises are made among people on both sides of the issue.

Skeptics of GM food should come to grips with the fact that the act of genetic manipulation is itself not unholy. As it is, few GMO haters would refuse medicine made with assistance from GM bacteria, like insulin, or a blood clot thinner used to treat a stroke. As GMOs have proven useful in medicine, they could also be useful in agriculture.

By the same token, proponents of GM foods should remember that for most skeptics of GM food, the bare act of genetic manipulation isn’t even the issue. It’s the process by which the technology has been rolled out that’s pissing them off. In many ways, the script is playing out according to old fears, and there seems little public recourse available.

The epitome of this power imbalance, of course, is Monsanto, which is simultaneously the world’s largest biotech corporation, seed company, organic seed company, and is one of the world’s largest pesticide companies. That’s a ridiculous concentration of power. A profitable concentration, if you’re on board, as genetically modified corn and soy covers about half of all U.S. cropland. But given we already grow way more corn and soy than we should, how is this a good thing?

The Rainbow papaya in Hawaii is an example of a GM food that resulted from a more confidence-inspiring process: a collaboration between farmers and a university, to solve a serious problem. An outbreak of ringspot virus was destroying Hawaii’s small papaya industry. A resistant papaya was engineered, and the problem appears to have been solved with little evident downside.

There is now an effort under way to use genetic modification to save Florida’s orange orchards, which are threatened by the greening virus. Bananas and chocolate, as well as other beloved and economically important crops, are susceptible to viruses as well, with many agricultural regions having already lost their ability to produce these crops. GMO haters might want to do a gut check by asking themselves if they would forgo GM chocolate if it was the last chocolate on earth.

And those who believe that all GM skeptics are being paranoid should remember that there is nothing inherently safe about introducing GM plants into people and the environment. If not tested and regulated appropriately, there will be problems. As the way has been paved by a corporate-led rush to create and perfect the most profitable biotech seeds, this process has led to a suspect product.

The rollout of GM foods has been awkward and wrong-footed since it began, in 1994, with the first GMO food ever to be commercially licensed: the slow-ripening Flavr Savr tomato. Its creators at Calgene had sought to use a process called antisense knockdown to shut down certain genes, and the Flavr Savr was approved according to this understanding. The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, meanwhile, was awarded to a team that figured out that in addition to the antisense knockdown, something entirely different was happening in that tomato as well, a process that is now known as RNA interference.

The Flavr Savr was pulled from the market, not because it was operating via a previously unknown pathway, but because it was too mushy. It turns out the world didn’t need another sucky supermarket tomato, yet we all took a risk, in a sense, on a tomato that was approved before anyone knew what was going on. That’s a horrible risk vs. return.

Red flags and all, skeptics need to face the fact that our species’ walk down the GMO trail is inevitable. And Naam is likely correct when he argues that biotech could prove a valuable tool to have in the chest when dealing with some important human and environmental problems.

After Philpott’s and Naam’s rebukes of his “GMOs don’t matter” conclusion, Johnson posted a response of his own, beneath the headline: “OK, GMOs matter, but the noisy fight over them is a distraction.”

He acknowledges that there are problems with GM foods, but thinks they have been overblown, and are solvable. He believes they have potential, though it’s barely been proven.

“There’s an entire industry pushing the argument that GMOs are the solution. I agree with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development that GMOs could be part of the solution, but we shouldn’t let the hype distract us from all the other ideas out there.”

The battle over GM food has become a proxy for a philosophical debate about the appropriate places of science and capitalism, and their powerful union, in our lives. This is an important, ongoing discussion to be having. But it’s a separate discussion, even if GM crops offer many cases in point.

The potential benefits and risks of GM food lie in the processes by which this neutral technology is deployed. So let’s focus on these processes, as part of focusing on how best to solve the problems that most need solving.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:28

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It’s time to throw money at endangered species


Endangered animals are “vicious,” “chicken-sized,” “unlikable,” and/or “insignificant.” Their genetic authenticity is questionable — subspecies? what’s a subspecies? — and their fitness debatable: Manatees, bison and pronghorns come to mind — all beasts that have not adapted to the trappings of contemporary man.

To read many popular accounts about the animals that form a growing cadre of the officially vanishing, you might conclude that it is their fault. Moreover, you would discover that these antediluvian critters attract numerous radicals and lawyers seeking to foist their continued presence upon us, stalling the entire economic regime of the United States.

What’s a country to do?

One proposal is to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a 41-year-old law signed by that liberal environmentalist president, Richard Millhouse Nixon. The ESA, it has been alleged, is invoked by nominal allies of the desert pupfish, Karner blue butterfly, and spotted owl simply to quash all development because ... well, because.

Compared to a new coalbed methane field, an agribusiness plot, or a tract housing development, of what use is, say, an Amargosa vole? Most people probably don’t even know what a vole is, let alone what its use might be. And, anyway, aren’t there other voles? Why should we care about the Amargosa one? Even by vole standards, its body is stubby, its ears embarrassingly small. When it was thought to be extinct, no one missed it much.

Naturally, radicals do not fret just about mammals (some of which are, to be honest, cute and furry). They also support birds. Lots of Hawaiian species you’ve never seen or heard of demand notice along with two sorts of eiders and two types of cranes. Wouldn’t one eider and one crane be plenty for any nation?

Here in Montana we are fighting to keep the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) off the endangered list, a cause that our own Steve Daines has championed to stop “federal overreach” and “abuse” that “fringe groups” use to severely restrict energy extraction, agriculture and the “outdoor recreation industry” — this according to Congressman Daines’ website. It is odd that a bird whose presence is a marvel of adaptation, whose spring displays are amazing spectacles that draw photographers and other outdoor enthusiasts, and whose worth as a source of food has been recognized for thousands of years should somehow be a grave threat now. Hmm. Are humans themselves just less adaptable these days?    

Clams, crustaceans, insects and plants are all protected by the ESA. It is, of course, very unlikely that fringe groups have a soft spot in their hearts for the purple catspaw mussel. They undoubtedly simply exploit it to stop economic progress. In fact, these fringe groups, as Congressman Daines calls them, have managed, according to the Forest Service, to halt 34 development projects (out of 100,000) in the past 15 years alone.

As people like Congressman Daines continue their push to weaken or reform the ESA, species continue to become extinct. In its present form, the law seems unable, then, to fulfill its purpose. Even if most animals on the list boast continued existence, it has been unable to stop the tide of extinction. Millions of dollars later, and what do we have to show for it? An extinct Caribbean monk seal no one really needed anyway.

Scientists (a fringe group?) claim that humans are causing the “Sixth Great Extinction.” This means that animals and plants are succumbing at a rate much greater than has been normal (excepting five other extinction episodes) in earth’s history. If this is true, then, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (another one of those notorious “fringe” groups), 30 percent to 50 percent of all species will be extinct by 2050.

Of course, we don’t just have 30 percent to 50 percent of species living in isolation. Keystone species, as they have been called, maintain the health and diversity of entire ecosystems. Some creatures are important pollinators, and their worth is, thus, quantifiable. Some plants and animals contribute to the cleanliness of our marshes and rivers. Others hold the keys to pharmaceutical innovation. A few are, admittedly, simply unique.

There is no guarantee, of course, that we ourselves will squeak through among the 50-70 percent to survive past 2050, is there?

So let’s put things in perspective. Thirty-six years from now, when we look up from our new super-intelligent phones, we may notice that the Bakken is long played out and that food and water are rather scarce as fisheries collapse and aquifers shrink or become contaminated. Air? Who knows? And what of the sage grouse?

“Throwing money at problems” like education, science, and preserving the earth’s biomes never works — or so we’re told. The only people who really flourish from those cash bombardments are coal, oil and gas companies. Still, it just may be that people like Congressman Daines will wish they had actually strengthened the ESA and shoveled billions toward putting the brakes on species extinctions. They may regret not listing as threatened both Centrocercus urophasianus and Homo sapiens sapiens.

Cara Chamberlain teaches English at Rocky Mountain College.


Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:26

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Tester, Baucus score high on environmental scorecard


Montana’s congressional delegation earned some of the highest and lowest numbers on a new annual scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters.

Members of Congress were rated on their 2013 votes in the House and Senate on bills connected to clean energy, wildlife issues and land conservation. Former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., earned 85 percent; Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., earned 92 percent; and Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., earned 4 percent, said Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters.

“We are hoping,” she said, “that in the next year, Congressman Daines gets more in step with Montana voters, who in poll after poll show their support for our clean and healthful environment, for clean water and our open spaces.”

Keaveny said Daines has voted to side with oil companies over protecting water, air and Montana’s outdoor heritage. Montana Conservation Voters and League of Conservation Voters are nonpartisan groups that focus on conservation issues and public health protections.

Keaveny said climate change, which science shows is caused by fossil-fuel pollution, is one of her group’s priorities, impacting family farm and ranch agriculture, fish and wildlife and Montana’s outdoor economy.

“We are very concerned that the impacts of climate change are ones that aren’t going to go away,” she said, “and we need to see action in Congress to move us towards a clean, renewable energy future.”

The average score nationwide was 58 percent for the Senate and 43 percent for the House. The National Environmental Scorecard has been issued annually for more than 40 years.

The scorecard is online at


Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:23

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Report finds problems in coal leasing process


A Government Accountability Office report on the federal Bureau of Land Management’s coal-management program has outlined a number of problems related to competition, and oversight in determining fair market value of federal coal leases.

In 90 percent of leases reviewed, there was only one bidder, the report found - and almost every time, that bid was accepted even though federal law requires competitive bidding.

Steve Charter, chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said the bottom line is that Montana isn’t seeing the money it should from coal leases.

“We’ve been following it for a long time and nobody’s paid much attention,” he said, “and here just in the last year, it has finally been scrutinized.”

Another criticism was aimed at not valuing coal accurately under the new model of demand - which is coal for export. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., is calling for a halt to new sales until changes are made. He estimated that recent sales across the nation have been undervalued by around $200 million.

The timing is right to stop new leases and revamp policies, Charter said, noting that would not stop existing leases or production.

“There’s kind of questionable demand for coal right now,” he said. “Generally, it would be a good time to pause, step back and examine the whole program.”

In addition, the GAO report found that the Interior Department is not providing full information to the public about leases. The report is online at


Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:18

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If feds don’t, states may stop ethanol subsidy


By ARI LEVAUX @arilevaux

While recent Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and same-sex marriage have held the nation’s attention, another decision slipped quietly under radar. In late June, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s program to raise the ethanol content of gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent, thus clearing the way for more ethanol in gasoline.

The new draft Farm Bill included more than a billion dollars’ worth of support for all things ethanol. While this action at the federal level is bullish for ethanol, many states are calling bullshit.

The fact that most ethanol is made from corn means that an increase in the ethanol content of gas could create, or exacerbate, a variety of problems, like higher food prices and elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Ethanol production has also been linked to the spread of a dangerous form of E. Coli.

But while federal support for ethanol appears to be as unstoppable as it is misguided, some individual states have shown the kind of horsepower that could turn around this dead-end policy. In June, Florida repealed its Renewable Fuel Standard, and that standard’s mandate that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol. And in May, Maine lawmakers approved a bill banning ethanol in gas, and asked the federal government to do the same.

The Maine House Republicans posted the following on

“Evidence is mounting that ethanol is a failure in virtually every way. It takes more energy to produce it than the fuel provides. Food supplies around the world have been disrupted because so much of the corn crop now goes to ethanol. It costs taxpayers billions of dollars in subsidies at a time when our nation is already $12 trillion in debt. Even environmentalists have turned against it; research shows that ethanol production increases the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.”

Maine’s Democrats have voted and spoken against ethanol as well. Indeed, “bipartisan” doesn’t begin to describe the diversity of opposition to ethanol. Ethanol fuel’s many problems have drawn together an opposing orgy of strange bedfellows, including the petroleum lobby, environmentalists, foodies, food processors, auto enthusiasts (cars don’t like ethanol, either) and citizens of all political bents-basically everyone outside of the corn belt and D.C.’s beltway. Only corn growers or the politicians they support stand to gain from ethanol, while all the rest of us get are the consequences.

Currently, 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used to make ethanol. Raising the allowable amount of ethanol in gasoline, as the Supreme Court’s recent decision greenlights, will likely increase demand for corn, drive up its price, and collaterally make food more expensive.

Already, increased corn demand created by ethanol policy in recent years has led to more land being cleared for agriculture. This activity, and the intensive tillage and monoculture-style farming system that produces most corn, has resulted in widespread loss of topsoil: 80 to 100 billion tons lost annually by some estimates. The vast and expanding monocultures of corn that blanket the Midwest are part of this problem.

Topsoil sequesters carbon dioxide. The more topsoil that’s lost, the less carbon dioxide is sequestered, yielding essentially the same result as adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Because of agriculture’s impact on soil loss, Allan Savory, a renowned rangeland and desertification specialist, considers agriculture one of global warming’s worst culprits, and has compared its effects to those of coal mining. Thick, healthy soils also absorb and hold water, while thin soil is less able to retain rainfall and irrigation, which increases the amount of water used in agriculture, which washes away even more topsoil.

When the energy costs of production, processing and transport are added up, ethanol is a net loss, according to T.J. Rogers, CEO of solar panel maker SunPower Corp. “Ethanol is a total waste,” Rogers told, echoing the words of the Maine Republicans. “The bottom line is that it takes between one and 1.3 gallons of gasoline-equivalent energy to produce one gallon of ethanol.”

Meanwhile, on the food-safety front, a byproduct of ethanol production called distillers grains, widely used in cattle feed, turns out to be a rich source of E. coli 0157, the pathogen behind several recent recalls of E. coli-tainted beef. Though links between distillers grains and specific cases of food-borne illness have yet to be established, it has been demonstrated that the higher the percentage of distillers grains in cows’ diets, the higher the level of E. coli 0157 in those cows.

It’s frustrating to see ethanol policy, which is clearly destructive and unproductive on so many fronts, being pushed for such transparent reasons. And one has to wonder if the level of federal support for ethanol would be any different if, instead of the Iowa caucus in the heart of corn country, the New Hampshire primary was the first event of the presidential election season.

But the recent rebuffs to ethanol in Florida and Maine are hopeful signs that fighting it out at the state level can be an effective means of change.

Again, the Maine House Republicans:

“We’re not so naïve as to think a resolution from the Maine Legislature will light a fire under Congress. Ideally, Congress should repeal the ethanol laws because they are doing more harm than good. Our objectives are more modest but will still encounter opposition; the Midwest ethanol lobby has powerful advocates on Capitol Hill and billions of subsidy dollars are at stake.

But if Maine sparks other states to act, we could coerce Congress to stand up to the special interests.”

As the Farm Bill bobs and weaves its way through the halls of Congress, it’s probably too much to hope that the dollars allocated to ethanol support will suddenly dry up. But given the broad opposition to ethanol policy – owing to the fact that it’s basically insane – I like the states’ chances to defeat it, step by step. As we’ve just witnessed with same-sex marriage, sometimes when the states lead, the federal government follows.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 20:58

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Rocky professors win major reseach award

Rocky Mountain College

Rocky Mountain College students will benefit from research study opportunities thanks to efforts of two RMC professors closely working with the Geological Society of America and ExxonMobil.

Dr. Thomas J. Kalakay, RMC associate professor, geology, and Dr. Derek Sjostrom, RMC assistant professor, geology, recently received the GSA/ExxonMobil Bighorn Basin Field Award. The award included a one-week field seminar where participants were “exposed to some of the industry’s latest techniques and concepts in petroleum systems analysis,” Dr. Kalakay said. “Through our participation we will be able to integrate cutting edge industry concepts into our geology classes.”

Establishing collaborative relationships with professional geoscientists at ExxonMobil, the world’s largest privately owned oil and gas company, will lead to exceptional research study opportunities for faculty and students at RMC, according to Dr. Sjosrom.

“I plan on having a series of undergraduates work on research projects in collaboration with ExxonMobil geoscientists,” said Dr. Sjostrom. “The first projects will focus on Mesozoic rocks exposed in the southern Pryors and into the Bighorn Basin proper.”

According to Sjostrom, RMC is located in a world-class hydrocarbon-producing region. The location, combined with new industry connections and an already strong relationship with local oil industry experts, sets RMC apart from all other schools in the region, he noted.

In a unique collaboration of academic and industry professionals, the GSA and ExxonMobil seminars focus on the Wyoming basin that has been explored and studied for more than 100 years by geoscientists.

The seminars are taught by four ExxonMobil professionals, who between them, have more than 100 combined years of research in integrated basin analysis, with specific skills in tectonics, geochemistry, structure, sequence stratigraphy, sedimentology, paleontology, hydrocarbon systems analysis, and integrated play analysis.

Through the exchange of ideas and development of projects the program will benefit students, academic professionals and the oil and gas industry. It also supports ExxonMobil’s efforts to hire high-caliber geoscientists, according to Jennifer Nocerino, a program officer with the non-profit GSA.

“ExxonMobil has veteran geoscientists with broad backgrounds and terrific experience. We were pleased when they approached the GSA to propose the creation of a hands-on experience for faculty and students,” Nocerino said.

ExxonMobil funds the Bighorn Basin Field Award program with GSA organizing and administering it. Nocerino said for students it is a rare opportunity and for all participants it is prestigious to be selected. Only 20 college students (15 undergrads and five graduate students) and five college faculty are chosen from more than 300 applicants.

“The program involves five teams, with each one making field trips in order to study the rocks,” Nocerino said. “Each team does their own research and interpretation then the information is shared. It’s a meeting of talented minds from academia and industry.”

GSA manages the lodging and meals, all funded by the ExxonMobil grant.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 25,000 members.

 from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, GSA encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all levels of earth science education.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 20:00

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Hemorrhagic disease widespread

South central Montana is experiencing a widespread outbreak of hemorrhagic diseases that are killing white-tailed deer, antelope and possibly elk.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologists say the naturally occurring diseases are more widespread than they have seen before, but are not particularly intense in any one area.

Bluetongue disease has been confirmed in both an antelope and a white-tailed deer in the area between Hardin and Custer.

FWP has fielded reports of dead elk in that area, but have not been able to collect a carcass that is fresh enough to test.

Biologists also suspect that epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, may be responsible for some white-tailed deer deaths.

Reports of dead white-tailed deer and antelope are widespread across the region, including farther west and south than have been seen before. Biologists have fielded reports of dead animals along the Yellowstone River as far upstream as Springdale, along Rock Creek as high as Boyd, along the Stillwater River to Absarokee and along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone to the Wyoming state line.

Bluetongue and EHD generally infect less than a quarter of local deer and antelope populations. Biologists do not know how many animals have died from hemorrhagic diseases this fall in south central Montana.

But they do not believe the mortalities are intense in any particular area.

Both EHD and bluetongue are naturally occurring viruses spread by tiny biting midges. The virus causes bleeding that kills the infected animal within a day or two. Dead animals frequently are found near water, where they go to alleviate a high fever caused by the disease.

Symptoms of EHD and bluetongue are identical, so laboratory tests on tissue from fresh carcasses are needed to differentiate between them.

The biting midges, also called sand gnats or no-see-ums, reproduce in wet sand or mud. Their numbers peak from mid-August through October, which accounts for the season appearance of hemorrhagic diseases.

The first frost of the fall stops the midges and brings a sudden end to outbreaks of bluetongue and EHD.

Other parts of Montana, including the eastern half of the state and the Missoula Valley, have reported outbreaks of EHD this late summer.

Humans are not at risk of contracting the disease by handling or eating deer or antelope or being bitten by midges. Animals that develop infections secondary to the hemorrhagic diseases may not be suitable for consumption, however.

A brochure of additional scientific information about hemorrhagic diseases is available online from the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 19:47

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Poachers wanted

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game wardens are offering a reward for information about an elk that was killed illegally in the Pryor Mountains south of Billings last month.

Game warden Courtney Tyree said someone killed the elk illegally and left all but the head and small amount of meat to waste.

The Pryor Mountain portion of hunting district 510 is closed to elk hunting because the herd there is struggling. “It is acts like this that are keeping the population from growing,” Tyree said. Also, it is illegal to leave elk meat to rot.

Anyone with information is encouraged to call Tyree at (406) 247-2940 or 1-800-TIP-MONT (1-800-847-6668). FWP is offering a reward of as much as $1,000 to anyone with information that leads to a conviction in the case.

The 1-800-TIP-MONT program is a toll-free number.

 where people can report violations of fish, wildlife or park regulations. Callers may remain anonymous. It is similar to the well-known Crimestoppers program and offers rewards for information resulting in conviction of persons who abuse Montana’s natural, historic or cultural resources.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 19:46

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How to raise a low-effort, high return garden



A kitchen garden is as much an act of self-expression as a means of growing food. But not all of a garden’s expressiveness is intentional. In the same way that pets and their owners can grow to resemble one another, gardens can reflect their gardeners’ personality, including how fastidious, lazy and greedy they are.

It would be a stretch to accuse me of being overly tidy, and the same can be said for my garden. But lazy and greedy? Guilty as charged. And when I allow these tendencies to play out in the garden, the target result is high output with minimal input, to indulge both my great expectations and my, shall we say, hands-off approach. My garden isn’t the most organized patch of dirt on the block, but it’s the only garden I can grow. And it does what I ask.

At the core of my low-effort, high-return gardening style is a practice I call throwing seeds at the garden. This technique is exactly what it sounds like: After preparing the soil and deciding what I’m going to plant in a given plot, I blanket the area with seeds cast by the handful. These seeds are not for my intended crops, but for a blanket of leafy plants to cover the space between them.

The seeds, usually a mixture of leafy greens and carrots, grow into an edible, living mulch. I look at it as a bonus crop, as it grows in space that isn’t normally planted. And it fills an important function in the garden as a ground cover.

I often toss seeds at the garden multiple times in a season. This year’s first tossing, just the other week, was a mix of curly and flat-leafed endive, tall and round radicchio, escarole, lettuce, cilantro, spinach, chard, basil, and whatever else I could scrounge together in the old seed bag. I even threw in sunflowers, nasturtiums, and beets. I simply dumped all my old seeds from last year’s garden in a bag, walked outside, and tossed my seeds at the empty brown garden by the handful, like I was seeding grass.

The garden had been put to bed last winter with early season seed tossing in mind, so it was ready. I raked the ground before and after seeding, and then watered in the seeds really well. Already the ground is dusted with green confetti.

My garden is basically one big garlic patch, which works well for my practice. Garlic is a great crop to scatter seeds at for several reasons. Garlic plants grow vertically, both above and below ground, so there is no conflict with other leaves or roots. Garlic doesn’t need much tending in general, so you won’t be stepping much on your greens and carrots. Also, garlic likes mulch, and if I wasn’t using this edible living mulch I’d have to mulch it with something else, like straw. After the garlic is harvested in July, it’s off to the races for the scattered carrots and greens, which suddenly have the place to themselves.

Other crops that work well intercropped with edible mulch are similarly lanky, non-spreading plants like corn, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, to name a few. Tomatoes, strawberries, and other slow-spreading plants can work as well. After all, tomatoes don’t really fill in until July. You can grow a lot of greenery in the space between in the meantime. You can also train tomatoes vertically to allow more salad space between plants.

Even if you don’t know what main crop you want to plant yet, you can start your garden as soon as the ground has thawed enough to be worked, by throwing seed mix at your blank garden now, and planting into it when the occasion arises. Say you’re at the farmers market and see some beautiful eggplant or pepper transplants to buy. You just take them home, clear a space in the salad and carrot patch, and pop them in. While the transplants are still small you may have to “weed” the neighboring mulch plants to make sure the new starts don’t get smothered by salad. By the same token, now would be a great time to place a seed order for some leaves and carrots.

It’s well-known that eating green leafy vegetables offers multiple health benefits. In addition to the dietary advantages of edible green mulch, it’s also a basic part of my zero-tolerance policy toward exposed earth, Any piece of ground that I can glimpse between plants is a place where sunlight is being wasted. Every wasted photon is a missed opportunity for edible plant growth, and actually does damage when it strikes the earth. Sun and wind both allow moisture to escape the ground, and wind can blow topsoil away.

My edible mulch discourages such damage by forming a thick green mat that captures the sunlight and shields the ground from the elements. It also tempers the daily extremes of hot and cold, and fosters an active bacterial presence in the soil, which can make a big difference in the garden’s yield.

And, anytime you want to have a salad or a stir fry, tear into that green mulch. It will eagerly grow back, which means that unless you’re a total salad addict you can harvest as much as you like. When the garden has finally run its course come fall, make sure to dig up the carrots before the tops die in the frost. After that, the carrots will still remain happy and delicious in the ground-if you can find them. Without the tops to flag them, you won’t know where to dig.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:25

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Keeping utility bills low

(StatePoint) Having trouble keeping your home comfortable year-round? You’re not alone. The average mid-size U.S. home has a staggering half mile of gaps and cracks that outside air, including dust and allergens, can infiltrate and that inside, conditioned air can leak out of, according to the Air Barrier Association of America.

You don’t want to let gaps and small holes around windows, doors, plumbing penetrations and electrical outlets go unaddressed.

By doing some straightforward air sealing and insulating projects around the home, homeowners can typically save up to 30 percent on home energy costs, according to the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). Even if you’re not that handy, you’re in luck. Sealing your home is as simple as knowing your 1,2,3’s and ABC’s. 

All you need to get started is:

• One sealant: An inexpensive product can do the trick. Opt for a versatile sealant to tackle a series of sealing projects around the home.

•Two Hours: It only takes a couple of hours to seal all those gaps and cracks that cause drafts in your home. Doing so will permanently increase the comfort, performance and energy-efficiency of your house. For a complete home sealing project checklist, visit

• Three Locations: Three key locations will be impacted the most by air sealing projects — the attic, basement and central living space. 

So where should you start looking? An easy trick to remember is the ABC’s of air sealing:

• A is for Attic: The attic is one of the main places in the home you’re likely to lose heat. So in addition to adding insulation, seal around the attic door to help keep air from escaping. You’ll keep heat inside your living space and make your family comfortable year-round by sealing the attic tightly to prevent drafts.

• B is for Basement: It’s damp, dark and cold, and often one of the largest air leakage culprits in the home. It’s also the most accessible, making it an excellent place to start sealing to prevent cooler air from seeping into the rest of your house.

• C is for Central Living Areas: Don’t neglect the most trafficked areas of your house where you eat, sleep, watch TV and hang out.  Fill the gaps and cracks in your living spaces - including around electrical outlets and plumbing penetrations - to prevent drafts throughout the year that directly impact the comfort of the home.

By following easy steps to seal your home, you can put a little extra spending money in your pocket and increase the overall comfort, performance and energy efficiency of your home.



Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:24

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Free cleaning services offered to patients

Maid to Shine Cleaning has partnered with Cleaning for a Reason to offer free professional house cleaning to improve the lives of women undergoing cancer treatment. Maid to Shine cleaning is committed to give back to the community by giving the gift of a clean home using non-toxic “eco-friendly” cleaning products, a news release said.

Elizabeth Buchanan, owner of Billings Maid to Shine, said “The Cleaning for a Reason program represents a community based opportunity for charitable giving and service with benefits that extend far beyond clean. Spirits are healed, gratifying experiences, professional generosity and a the sense of purpose rediscovered.”

Maid to Shine will donate its services to a loved one with cancer who is in need of a sparkling clean and dust-free home. “We want you to feel like your old self again!”

Contact Maid to Shine Cleaning at (406) 702-0337, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:21

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Smart home improvements may save owners money

(StatePoint) During fall, many homeowners focus on small upgrades and improvements. The turning season is the perfect time to find and correct potential compromises in your home before they become larger, and more costly, renovation issues.

“Whether it is routine home exterior checks or appliances purchases, there are many ways homeowners can conduct basic, inexpensive home maintenance,” said Harold “Bud” Dietrich, member of the American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Architecture Network.

DIY home inspection

Many people don’t know that they should perform twice-a-year home inspections. The prime time for these inspections is in the spring and fall. Take the time to give your house a thorough review.

Start by walking the perimeter of your property to see if there is any rotting wood, mold, loose gutters or shingles. Then check for any cracks that have settled or work that could be done to siding, roofing or windows.

Inspect the bathroom and kitchen for loose or missing tiles and leaks in sinks and faucets. Ensure that appliances are working at maximum capacity.

Although these may not seem like major issues, it is much easier to tackle them during milder seasons so potential problems aren’t made worse by extreme weather.

Exterior updates

Many people underestimate the seriousness of dirt and mulch covering the siding of a home. Most building codes actually require at least six inches of the foundation to be exposed.

Beyond breaking these codes, dirt and mulch build-up pulls moisture from the ground and causes it to develop in the walls. Eventually mold will start to grow, which can lead to a variety of indoor air quality and structural problems. Raking around the foundation of your home regularly can help combat this problem.

Another area to consider for easy updates is exterior paint. Peeling paint isn’t only unattractive; it also exposes the siding of your home to the elements. Regular maintenance of areas that need re-painting can save major headaches down the line.

Updating appliances

Buying new appliances can be an investment, and, as such, paying a higher price upfront can actually save you money in the long run.  The right appliances can last for twenty years or more, while more inexpensive models often break down after a few years. Newer models are also often more energy efficient. If cost or budget is an issue, store display models are often offered at extremely discounted prices.

Also make an investment in flooring and countertops. Buying laminate countertops will initially be cheaper than granite countertops, but in ten years the granite countertops will still look brand new, while the laminate will be worn out and need to be replaced.

An architect can help homeowners apply many of these cost-saving home improvements in smart and strategic ways. To find one in your area, visit:

Don’t wait. Fall is the ideal time to make small improvements that will save you money and time later on.


Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:20

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NorthWestern warns of scam

NorthWestern Energy is again warning residential and business customers about an attempted scam involving collection on allegedly overdue utility bills.

In recent days, an individual telephoned a NorthWestern Energy customer in Huron, S.D., claiming to be an employee of the company and demanding payment on an energy bill. The customer was told that if immediate payment wasn’t made, utility service would be terminated.

The customer lost $300 after purchasing a prepaid debit card issued by a discount store and sharing the card’s redemption information with the scammer. The customer later contacted NorthWestern Energy to report the activity. A similar attempt targeting a NorthWestern customer in Butte, was also reported. In May, a business owner in Bozeman lost $1,000 in a nearly identical scam.

NorthWestern reported the recent incidents to law enforcement authorities. The activity appears to be the latest version of a scam that has targeted a number of NorthWestern customers this year. Across the nation, other utilities have reported similar scam activity.

The phone callers typically seek immediate payment of “overdue” utility bills, often demanding credit-card numbers or other form of payment that can be converted to cash.

NorthWestern reminds customers to be vigilant when it comes to anyone seeking payment information on utility bills, either in person or via the telephone or Internet. The phone callers can be convincing.

They might use “spoofing” software that lets them falsely display the name and phone number of the utility company on the recipient’s Caller ID.

NorthWestern will provide several past-due notices before terminating service. If you get a cancellation notification, always verify it by dialing the customer service number on your utility bill. Don’t supply any personal information unless you are sure you are indeed working with the utility. NorthWestern never asks customers to use a prepaid debit card for payment.

The Better Business Bureau offers these tips to avoid falling victim to a utility scam:

* Never provide your Social Security Number, credit card number or banking information to anyone requesting it over the phone or at your home unless you initiated the contact and feel confident with whom you are speaking.

* If you receive a call claiming to be your utility company and feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill.

* Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, natural gas pipes or appliances unless you have scheduled an appointment or have reported a utility problem. Also, ask utility employees for proper identification.

* Always think safety first. Do not give in to high-pressure tactics over the phone for information or in person.

Customers with questions or concerns about potential scams should contact NorthWestern Energy or their state’s Consumer Affairs department to report possible scams or questionable or business offers. Montana customers can contact NorthWestern at (888) 467-2669.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:19

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Signs you need insulation

(StatePoint) The average family spends more than $1000 annually – nearly half a home’s total energy bill – on heating and cooling costs, according to the U.S. government's Energy Star program. Unfortunately, a large portion of those expenses are wasted due to poor home insulation.

Homeowners prepping for winter can stop the energy waste cycle by taking a closer look at their insulation. As one of the fastest and most cost-efficient ways to reduce energy waste and lower bills, insulation traps warm air inside a home’s walls – similar to how a fleece sweater does for the body – to regulate a home’s temperature. But how do you know if your home is properly insulated?

“Fortunately, there are telltale signs that can alert any homeowner that it’s time to add to or replace their home’s insulation — before the temperature plunges and the energy bill rises,” says Mike Benetti, segment manager at Roxul, a leading manufacturer of stone wool insulation.

The experts at Roxul advise any homeowner with a do-it-yourself mentality to run through the following checklist to determine whether their home has adequate insulation:

• Vintage home: Prior to consistent building codes, most homes built before 1980 were not insulated. If your home has no materials trapping heat, energy conservation is an uphill battle. Walls, ceilings and floors are the most important areas to add insulation for an immediate, positive impact on a home’s energy usage and bills.

• Non-stop furnace: Does your furnace seem to run non-stop in the winter? Adequate insulation leads to less maintenance on your heating system, as it lasts longer, runs less and will require less maintenance for long-term cost savings.

• Temperature inconsistency: If you feel cold spots coming from the walls or attic, or one room of your home is drafty and another one warm, you may need to beef up your insulation. The fireplace, walls and attic are prime spots for drafts.

Look for insulation that can fit snugly in rafters and other tight areas. For example, Roxul ComfortBatt insulation made from recycled stone, can be cut with a serrated blade for an exact fit.

• Roof hot spots: If your shingles are exposed after a recent snowfall, chances are these “hot spots” are indicative of warm air escaping. Check your attic for adequate insulation.

If you can easily see your floor joists, you should add more.

 Use insulation, such as stone wool, that won’t sag or lose density over time.

• Mold Growth: Mold in the corners of ceilings could mean your current insulation slumps and holds moisture. If this occurs, it’s time to replace your insulation with one that does not store or transfer moisture and is completely resistant to mold, mildew, rot and bacterial growth, such as Roxul ComfortBatt.

More information about properly insulating your home can be found at

Don't let cool weather take you by surprise. With proper insulation, you can improve the comfort of your home significantly and enjoy energy savings.


Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:17

Hits: 3328

In Billings, landscaping is all about cosmetics


“In Billings,” the letter said, “we value neighborhood and community efforts to maintain a beautiful City.” The problem was, the letter maintained, that I had not been doing my part in these efforts. My yard represented a “nuisance” to the “public health and welfare” because it contained “untended vegetation” more than a foot tall. If I failed to rein in this excess and refused to pay the variety of fines that could build up in response to said failure, a lien would be placed on my property.

I thought about the six years of my residency at the address referred to in the city letter and the care I had taken to choose just the right plantings. I thought about my aching hands, knees and back from all the yard work I had done. I wondered, to be succinct, what exactly the complaint was.

So I assessed my yard. Ah, there was bindweed growing up the fence in back and bindweed in the front flowerbeds. Now, bindweed is about the most vile plant known to man, and I have been working all these years to control it. I could understand any complaint lodged against bindweed.

But, as I soon discovered upon talking with one of Billings’ two code enforcement officers, bindweed was not the problem. No, it was my blue grama grass out front, a plant with lovely seedheads and a rich green hue in summer that turns golden in fall and winter. I also — gulp — had a patch of sunflowers.

Blue grama is a warm season grass and, I admit, it does look pretty ratty until it greens up. However, it requires very little water (about 12 inches per year seems to work well), no fertilizing, and little (if any) mowing. It also effectively chokes out bindweed and other noxious intruders, and thus requires no applications of herbicide.

However, to please the good people of Billings, I will keep it trimmed so that it looks like an almost grown-out crew cut.

Frankly, though, I have to wonder at the popular definition of “public health and welfare,” and how growing region-appropriate plants constitutes a “nuisance.” A quick exploration of neighborhood yards has led me to several conclusions in this regard:

1. Codes are enforced haphazardly. As the very kind code enforcement officer explained, there are only two such professionals in Billings, and they must respond to complaints. Perhaps they have little time for problems that do not generate outrage.

2. Bindweed and other noxious invasives are ubiquitous. Thus, there is no concern for quality of vegetation. It’s all about cosmetics. If I keep a crop of goat-head thorns at a tidy 4 inches, there is no health hazard or public nuisance even though all the neighborhood kids will have flat bike tires and their dogs will limp.

3. No particular effort is made by the city to trim weeds in public spaces.

4. Vegetation that obstructs drivers’ vision is not deemed a “nuisance.”

5. Drenching a lawn with herbicides does not constitute a health hazard and, is, in fact, quite common.

My explorations of the neighborhood and, indeed, the city itself have led me to characterize the choices we citizens of Billings make about our living space. We prefer monocultures to diversity, convenience to beauty, and order to disorder. Certainly, these preferences are understandable if biologist E.O. Wilson is right when he claims that we humans innately crave the open, grassy landscapes in which we evolved.

Still, given our dwindling resources and tight pocketbooks, why doesn’t the city encourage (and why don’t citizens demand) a more suitable use of our yards? They are, let’s face it, basically prairie. What should grow here are bunch grasses, skunkbush sumac, cottonwoods, deer, rabbits, and bison.


Ay, there’s the rub. Though going a bit “natural” in our landscaping would conserve water, save money, and limit chemical runoff into our rivers, it would also force us to consider our presence in this place. Why did the wild things that lived here have to be “cleared” away?  And what about the human cultures that inhabited our neighborhoods, say, a hundred years ago? What of them?

No, most of us don’t want to think about that. So we cultivate our Kentucky blue grass at great effort and expense, put money in the pockets of chemical companies, and rarely (from what I have observed) venture outside at all. This lack of pedestrian traffic must also be why very few homeowners shovel their walks in the winter, preferring to leave them an icy hazardous mess ... but that’s another argument.

Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.


Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:15

Hits: 1506

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