The Prudent Man

Rick Bass

The indefatigable Cesar Hernandez is to the Cabinet Mountains and the rest of northwest Montana the shining spirit, the one link in a greater chain. Slender, wiry, alternately mercurial and thoughtful, Hernandez, a native of Puerto Rico, grew up in Brooklyn and moved to the secluded Cabinet-Yaak country almost forty years ago. He fought as a Marine in Vietnam and worked in the woods as a tree feller and miner. He’s an elk hunter and union organizer, but he has been unfairly reviled for years by loggers who have never met him but who have heard his fearful name.

Working for the Montana Wilderness Association as their sole field rep in northwest Montana, Cesar covered a territory the size of the state of West Virginia—Lincoln, Sanders, Flathead, and Lake counties—while reporting back to Helena, six and a half hours (one way) from the farthest reaches of his territory. He also spearheaded the drive to turn back one mine after another from the flanks of these slender, imperiled mountains: Noranda Mining on the east face, Asarco on the west face, and the proposed Fourth of July and Way-Up mines, in which individuals sought to drive a jeep through the wilderness (courtesy of the 1872 Mining Act) to access their claims.

One of the best Cesar stories is one of the oldest. More than thirty years ago, prospectors were planning to patent a claim up in the Scotchman Peaks country just over the border in Idaho—an 88,000-acre, unprotected roadless area and Cesar’s favorite place on Earth. A fellow activist, Cal Ryder, was sitting at his table having Thanksgiving dinner when, through a snowstorm, he saw helicopters descending into the basin. He and Cesar rushed up there on snowshoes and found ribbons and survey sticks everywhere.

Cesar jumped the claim, filed for it himself, and proved it up under the 1872 Mining Act’s “Prudent Man” language, which states that a claim is viable if it appears “a prudent man” could make a living from it.

What Prudent Man would give his life over to activism and the wilderness in the way that Cesar has? And yet, the claim stuck; he was deemed, or believed, to be a Prudent Man. Rumors swirl that he was offered a million dollars for it—this to a man with a yard full of broken or near-broken Subarus—but instead Cesar passed the claim to the Cabinet Resource Group, an all-volunteer organization he helped to form, that has had to raise the dollars to renew the mineral claim each year.

Sadly, the Scotchman’s—at the time one of two unprotected areas the Kootenai National Forest deemed worth managing as wilderness in all of its 2.4-million acre management area—seemed sometimes to be going backwards, up for grabs under then-current Forest Plan proposals. A few rogue snowmobiles had been trespassing into the area, in violation of Forest Plan standards, and there had been indications that some were willing to reward such trespass by legalizing it, despite the fact that the Scotchman’s had received more comments in support of wilderness designation than any other roadless area in Montana. Even today, conservationists continue to try to have the area protected as designated wilderness.

Here’s a typical Cesar endeavor: In nearby rural Thompson Falls—the southern end of the Cabinets—the local community agreed to let a wood-fired, cogenerating electrical plant be permitted, believing it would be fed by overstocked, small-diameter, non-marketable fuels produced from the thinning of brush and saplings in the community. But once the permit was secured and the plant had been purchased, the permittee applied for an amendment allowing them to burn coal instead of slash. (The narrow valley was already in non-compliance with federal air-quality laws). The notice was posted in the local paper on September 11, 2001 and was never commented upon; no one in Thompson Falls even knew of the change.

But Cesar noticed, and he helped the community organize. In addition to being exposed to excessive levels of mercury, particularly in light of the almost simultaneous relaxing of such standards by the second Bush administration, residents would have been exposed to tons of fly-ash, a product which, coincidentally, a proposed mine, the Rock Creek, less than thirty miles away, would need in great supply for their planned experimental mixing into the tailings pit. The permit was issued anyway, though the plant finally stopped burning coal in 2013. But at least one person spoke up. And at least other communities learned not to be tricked in this manner again.

In so many ways, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem seemed always to be the world-in-a-nutshell, the ground zero of all environmental matters, from corporate asbestos liabilities (the world’s largest asbestos mine once existed here) to endangered species attacks, and from wilderness issues to mining precedents and forest management abuses. It seemed to be a magical wellspring of challenge and yet also opportunity, destruction and yet creation, and Cesar was everywhere in it.

He fought a $68 million boondoggle proposal to pave a dirt road through the mountains, along which only two residents lived year-round. He was part of a citizens’ committee dedicated to recovering the grizzly population in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. He participated weekly in the all-critical Forest Plan Revision meetings, which would help determine the next fifteen years of management direction for not just the Kootenai National Forest but the neighboring Idaho Panhandle National Forest as well.

Another interesting one-man Cesar fight involved the Revett Mining Company, which had bought the old, nearly played-out Troy mine. When copper prices dipped, the mine had closed a few years prematurely and left town—another of many economic yo-yos in the region. On the company’s way out of town, rumor had it they had buried some mysterious barrels of waste in their tailings impoundment. Cesar heard the rumor and chased it to ground. Revett denied there were any barrels. Cesar and the Cabinet Resource Group scraped up enough money to run a ground-penetrating radar survey and found about thirty barrels hidden within the tailings.

Oh, those barrels, the company said. Um, those barrels contain floculant, a harmless de-greaser. Perhaps to calm people down, the company did a water quality survey in a nearby creek, three miles away. No trichloroethylene here, they proclaimed.

Who said anything about trichloroethylene?

A check of manifest statements of trichloroethylene shipped into the mine, versus that accounted for, revealed a pretty significant disparity—enough for thirty barrels.

The last time I saw Cesar was in a meeting. He had taken a break to use the phone and was on two calls at once—one for the Cabinet Resource Group, the other for the Montana Wilderness Association. His back had gone out, and he was in pain. He looked stressed but steadfast. After the meeting, we visited a little, as ever, about the Scotchman’s and about Rock Creek. He informed me that some new activists in the region had learned a lesson from the original Prudent Man and had secured claims on a checkerboard of patents lying between the proposed Rock Creek mine and the highway: in effect, ringing and surrounding the proposed mine, as if holding it under siege.

Cesar grimaced as his back seized with a spasm, then released. He finished his coffee, grabbed his briefcase, and was out the door.

Noreen Rei Fukumori, Fuyu Kaki


Many talented individuals are featured in the West Marin Review. Please click below for this volume’s contributors.

    • Noreen Rei Fukumori   Fuyu Kaki
    • Julia Edith Rigby   Tomales Calf
    • Blair Fuller   Grand Central Station
    • J. C. Stock   Bird Standing on Water
    • Rick Lyttle   Unorganized Sports
    • Vicki DeArmon   A Mother’s No
    • Stephanie E. Dickinson   Emily and the Dynamite
    • Alvin Duskin   The Red Arrow
    • Elaine Elinson   Bringing the Grape Boycott to England
    • Rick Bass   The Prudent Man
    • Molly Katzman   When It Stops Raining We Sleep Beneath the Stars
    • Rosaleen Bertolino   The Burned Hill
    • G. David Miller   Our Family Farm
    • Claire Peaslee   Colophon
    • Jody Farrell   Ode to the First Blackberry of Summer
    • Keith Ekiss   Miss Maria’s New Dress
    • Pamela Manché Pearce   Ocean View, Hotel Nacional de Cuba
    • Anuja Mendiratta   Brasil Vignettes
    • Roy Mash   Revolving Sunglass Display
    • Hiroki Coyle   The Treasure
    • Gerardo Loza   Where I’m From
    • Heather Quinn   Mindspill: a Paradelle
    • Agnes Wolohan von Burkleo   Now I Am an Old Woman
    • Dave Seter   Mission Blues
    • Gina Cloud   night poem
    • Dale Pendell   Sunset
    • Larry Ruth   South Fork of the Kings River
    • Cathryn Shea   The Chill of Grace
    • Claire Blotter   California Wild Flower Tonic
    • Anna Gold   “Will You Miss This?”
    • Mary Winegarden   Untitled
    • Ashley Teodoro   Seal
    • Adam Shemper   On the Day of Our Engagement, Motel Inverness Boardwalk, Tomales Bay
    • Jenifer Kent   Wave and Transit
    • Mariana Smith   The Seed of an Idea
    • Nancy Stein   Wave 43
    • Rebecca Czapnik   So Little, So Much
    • Brooke Holve   mtlaugwalkcut_5
    • Sophia Dixon Dillo   Appearance I and Appearance III
    • Noreen Rei Fukumori   Backyard Fruit
    • Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman   Marine Study, Chimney Rock
    • Topaze “t.c.” Moore   Bestiary #1 and Quagga Stallion and Foal
    • Sherri Paul   The Treasure Hunter
    • Patricia Thomas   Fog
    • Anne Faught   URSA
    • Julia Edith Rigby   Tomales Calf
    • Jacqueline Mallegni   Haiku
    • Vincent Dion   Untitled #37
    • Sage Rossman   Two Trees
    • Shirley Salzman   Periodic Art of the Elements
    • Theodora Varnay Jones   CP-X
    • Susan Putnam   Untitled #244
    • Eileen Puppo   Seasonal Shock
    • Wendy Schwartz   Rich Readimix
    • Bob Kubik   Morning Coffee
    • Adah Pinchuk Hyman   Estero in Blue and Tomales Bay, Low Tide
    • Kathleen Goodwin   Homage to the Half Tree
    • Andrew Thompson   Warning: Bees
    • Charles Eckart   View from the Bicycle
    • Caitlin McCaffrey   Domed Nest with Pantry Chambers
    • Catherine J. Richardson   Caspian
    • D. L. Woerner   Joan’s Falcon
    • Lisa Piazza   Leaf #3
    • Lorraine Almeida   Growth in the Desert
    • Isis Hockenos   We, the Milked III
    • Jon Langdon   Asters in Starlight
    • Thomas D. Joseph   Tennessee Valley Beach
    • Mark Ropers   Point Lobos