Production Journal

Hot summer nights

It was over a hundred degrees in Northwest Montana when we returned to the Valley that summer of 2002.

Co-producer Kelly Whalen with Director of Photography Blake McHugh on location in MontanaLeft: Co-producer Kelly Whalen with Director of Photography Blake McHugh on location in Montana

Before we left Kalispell the first time, a group of people had started to plan a follow-up "Hands Against Hate/Not In Our Town" event. It was organized as a "party in the park" -- with food and music. Brenda Kitterman and the people who had joined her anti-hate efforts hoped such an event would bring people together.

Many of the Valley's civic leaders attended, including Kalispell Mayor Pam Kennedy, Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner, Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial and Columbia Falls Police Chief Dave Perry. They joined about 150 people who came out for the event despite the blistering heat.

That afternoon was the first time we met Gary Hall, who was then mayor of Columbia Falls. "I've been criticized for being with this group because I am a Republican, a conservative Republican, and I'd like us to get away from using the word extremist. That isolates, that divides us," he told the audience.

We took his words to heart and tried to be very careful about how we used the word "extremist" as we moved forward with the story.

Brenda invited investigative journalist David Neiwert in from Seattle to speak about "In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest," his book on the militia movement.

He provided his analysis of how the anti-government militia movement was taking hold in the Northwest and the role of radio shows like John Stokes' in creating an atmosphere of intimidation.

We asked some people aside for interviews, including Carolyn Beecher and her boyfriend Dave Haddon, a local leader with Montana Wilderness Association. Carolyn was a close friend of Tary Mocabee -- the local environmentalist who had recently died -- and she had inherited Tary's property in Lake County just south of the Valley. Carolyn had lived with the uncertainty surrounding Tary's death for over a year, but said she had resigned herself to the police investigators' perspective that Tary's drowning was probably an accident. She said she identified with people who were out of work in the Valley who felt angry about the changes that were taking place. She felt it was important that those sentiments were not confused with the militia activity.

Scott Daumiller, a local activist who we would meet later, sat on a ledge watching the speakers, but didn't talk with anyone at the event, including us.

After the party, a large group of us headed for the Bulldog, a downtown Kalispell bar and grill which would become one of our local hang outs during the next few years (the Bulldog is now gone, and has been replaced by a wine bar).

We were settled into the back room, but Brenda came back from the ladies room and said, "Did you check out the table of guys in survival gear sitting at the front of the bar?" I wandered into the front room with Mayor Pam Kennedy. She asked the bartender if he knew the guys at the table and was told they were a group visiting from Florida. Associate producer and sound man Brian Dentz was about to go talk to the group, but had stopped to look at a large display of hunting knives on the wall.

Just about then, the lights went out.

Pam Kennedy and I just stared at each other and headed quickly to the front door. A huge thunderstorm had blown into town. The heavy wind was mixed with cracks of thunder and lightning (just a few blocks away, a fast food restaurant would become the evening's victim). As we were headed back in, the survivalists were leaving. The bartender had pulled out some candles and Director of Photography Blake McHugh and Brian Dentz were setting up a table in the front room. We settled in with a few beers to weather out the storm.

The next day, we met Scott Daumiller and his friend J.B. Stone at a cafe in Columbia Falls. They both wrote many letters to the editor about forest issues and the environmentalists. Someone had told me that J.B. had connections to the militia movement. When we first started talking, these guys put me off. J.B. was incredibly angry and talked about how much he hated the local environmentalists, including Keith Hammer. Scott had this very cold look on his face and kept staring at me. I asked if we go somewhere outdoors to do the interview. Scott suggested the Stoltz lumber mill where he worked.

Something happened when the cameras started rolling. They both pulled down their tough guy guards and started talking about what they cared about, and I started listening instead of being defensive. Scott had grown up here and felt like he was watching his town being destroyed. Where were the jobs going to come from if all the mills were closed, he wanted to know. "I can't feed my family from a seven-dollar-an-hour job at Target." He reminded me of many people I had met over the years who were angry about how the country was losing jobs to trade deals and corporations moving overseas. But unlike many people I'd spoken to, Scott seemed to personally blame environmentalists for the economic downfall.

After awhile we headed up into the woods. J.B. seemed to be the more ideological of the two. He had once worked in commercial real estate in Southern California and was active in property rights issues. He was pretty upset when he heard that we were told he was in the militia. He said he thought the liberals accused everyone else, but he believed they were the ones who were stereotyping. He said his beliefs set him apart from the most vocal members of both the left and the right. "John Stokes has my number blocked on his radio station," he told me. " He can't stand when I call him out on a lie."

Scott kept repeating the same message, "All I want to do is go out in the woods and pick huckleberries." Apparently the road closures resulted from the Clinton Roadless Initiative, which was designed to restore wilderness areas throughout the country.

The closures were the source of deep anger and resentment not just from the logging industry, but the increasingly vocal recreation forces who use off road vehicles. Scott told us that the forest service gates were cutting his friends and family out of their access to the forest, and one of their favorite hobbies -- huckleberry picking.

I started to warm to these guys, despite our differences over the source of the friction in the Valley. Their passion about their cause helped convince me that I had to open myself up to a more deeply complicated story than the town's response to Project 7.

Our shooting day wouldn't end until sunset on the deck of a pub on the east side of Flathead Lake. I've been extremely lucky to work with cameraman Blake McHugh for the past twelve years. He's a stellar photographer and a good friend. But Blake dreads summer shoots with me. "She never wants to stop until the sun goes down," Blake warned Brian Dentz, a New Yorker who was working his first doc with us. In the Northwest, that means we still have light at ten o'clock. We had set up the camera for a time lapse of the sunset. Just as it was going down, I noticed a spider weaving its web at the corner of the deck. We all admitted later that this picture would aptly illustrate the ominous words that filled the airwaves in the valley.