Will the West Survive?
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Montana: A Dry River Runs Through It

Montana, one of our most beautiful states, is even more striking when you come via Yellowstone, simply because of the number of green trees. In Missoula, I get lunch with Tim O'Leary, a friend of a friend who now owns one of the most popular microbreweries in town, Kettlehouse. Before he began making beer, O'Leary studied environmental science and worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, not far from the Mesa Lab. He uses 100 percent local barley (along with ingredients like pelletized industrial hemp, for his Olde Bongwater Hemp Porter), though he says it's been harder in recent years for farmers in Montana to make a living growing crops, that they've been selling off their land to people he calls "gentlemen ranchers" – wealthy folk from the coasts looking for vacation properties.

After lunch, O'Leary drives me back to his brewery, where I've left my car. It's about 90 degrees. "Ten years ago, on a day like today, I'd have the A/C on," he says, "but I've gotten more heat tolerant." We pass over the Clark Fork River, which cuts through town. "There's the effin' 'River that Runs Through It,'" O'Leary says drily. He's referring, of course, to the Norman Maclean short story (and, later, Robert Redford movie) about fly-fishing, set in Missoula, where Maclean grew up. In college, O'Leary himself used to lead fishing and rafting tours. "The Clark is an interesting story," he says. "Way back when, you'd dam a river for business reasons: to float logs or to generate power. Now they dam it to make the whitewater better, so people can recreate." I don't believe I've heard "recreate" used as a verb before, but in Montana, where tourism is such a crucial part of the local economy, it makes sense: Extreme weather could have a severe economic impact here. By late August, air quality had gotten so bad in parts of Montana, thanks to wildfire smoke, that the state recommended people "limit prolonged exertion outdoors," according to an article in the 'Missoulian,' and high school football teams began moving their practices indoors. Fishing restrictions were also placed on rivers and streams throughout Montana because of the heat. (When water temperatures reach 73 degrees or higher for three consecutive days, fish are far less likely to survive being caught and released.) "Even business Republicans understand," O'Leary says, "Montana is about blue skies and clean water."

Later that evening, I wander along the banks of the Clark, stopping at a marker indicating where Lewis and Clark once crashed their raft, because the water was so rough. Tonight it's very placid. Some people lazily tube, others fish. Kids dive off a bridge, ignoring signs warning them not to dive off the bridge. I was expecting to see the corpses of boiled fish. Instead, a fat beaver swims by, mocking my unsavory journalistic appetite for bad news.

The next morning, I fly out to Sacramento, where, a couple of hours north, the wildfires now cover 28,000 acres, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.