This article is part of a series on the youth-led constitutional climate change case Held v. Montana, who will be tried in Helena on June 12. The rest of the series can be read at mtclimatecase.flatheadbeacon.com. This project is produced by Flat head lighthouse editorial staff, in collaboration with Montana Free Pressand is supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Scholarship.
Rikki Held’s last name has been referenced in legal briefs, news articles and water cooler conversations for two years now, ever since the court case Held v. State of Montana has been filed in the First Judicial District Court of Montana. Held was one of 16 junior plaintiffs who filed lawsuits in 2020 against several Montana government agencies and its governor, alleging that implementing two energy-related policies is a violation of young people’s constitutional right to a clean and healthy. Since she was the only plaintiff of legal age when it was filed, it is her name that will forever be linked to the decision made in the historic case.
Held was brought to the legal table by a winding path through the heart of her family’s ranch. Held grew up on a 7,000-acre ranch and has seen the destruction of her family’s land and livelihoods caused by the changing climate, an experience she feels can be understood by ranching and farming communities in rural states.
I think ranchers see it differently, ranchers are down every day, Held said. Maybe they don’t necessarily have as many conversations about climate change, but they are seeing these changes with wildfires and are concerned about the day-to-day impacts of rising hay prices due to drought and livestock losses due to water or soil variability. fires.
Between growing up on a ranch and a chance encounter with the world of scientific research at a young age, Held carved out a unique path to the courtroom. And though she Held didn’t set out to become a climate activist, she felt compelled to act on behalf of her younger peers. Those who are too young to vote on government actions are looking at the world through a different lens than their older counterparts, she says.
As young people, we are exposed to a lot of knowledge about climate change. We can’t keep passing it on to the next generation when we’re told about all the impacts that are already happening, Held said. In a way, our generation feels a lot of pressure, a kind of burden, to make something happen because it’s our lives that are at risk.
Before it was a legal reference, Rikki Held’s name was first published in the acknowledgments of a 2015 peer-reviewed article in the scientific journal GeoResJ titled Preserving geomorphic data records of flooddisturbs. Although Held was in middle school at the time, she is credited with helping US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers survey cross sections of Montanas Powder River, one of the longest and most bankless rivers in the ‘West, which passes through his family’s 7,000-acre ranch.
The Powder River begins in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming and flows north through Montana before joining the Yellowstone River between Miles City and Glendive. With no man-made changes along the way, aside from a few detours to irrigate farmland, Powder River offers a long, natural, open-air laboratory—a scientists’ dream. A river study beginning in the 1970s quantified natural erosion, sediment transport and deposition throughout the river bed and mapped changes in the river channel with specific attention to high flood years or periods following fires in the vicinity. Researchers established 24 survey sites along a 57-mile stretch of the Powder River, many of which are accessible through the Held family ranch.
Several scientific papers have come out of the study over the years. One documented the aftermath of a major flood event in 1978 in which up to 65 feet were eroded from sections of the riverbank. Regular follow-up studies have characterized sediment composition, erosion patterns, and plant distribution along the river.
Even when I was little I dated [the researchers] during surveys, just following them and learning from them, Held said, adding that she was somewhat involved in science, which later led to internships and ultimately, a mention in the 2015 paper. I think that really got me interested in science, I was able to relate it back to my ranch, to my home.
Throughout high school, Held gravitated towards the hard sciences. I remember a diagram of the wind model with Hadley cells, and I thought it was fascinating how things could be explained, she said. I got really interested in environmental science this way and learned about climate change in high school. I just knew that this is a very serious problem that we need to focus on.
Held, now 22, graduated from Colorado College with a degree in environmental science this spring and is trying to figure out how to use her aptitude for environmental research to carve out a career path. Speaking about a recent NASA-funded study that she contributed to, Held became visibly enthusiastic as she described her work on combining ecology and geomorphology to map invasive Russian olive species. She said she’s considering future studies in climatology or hydrology, something about Earth processes where I can bring that back to people and use science to help them.
While Held was learning to examine the widths of streams and how Hadley’s cells circulate tropical air around the world, he was also witnessing the effects of extreme weather events on his family’s livelihood. The complaint alleges that in 2007, after several years of drought in southeastern Montana, the Powder River dried up, eliminating the source of water for the ranch’s crops and livestock. A decade later, an early spring thaw inundated the river basin, nearly reaching Held’s house and eroding several feet of levee. Increased risks from major flood events, such as the 2022 floods that damaged an entrance road to Yellowstone National Park, have been linked to global warming. A study published using data from the Powder River also cites climate change as a contributing cause for the change in the rate of river migration over time.
The Held family lost their livestock to flooding, an economic hardship for any ranch. On essentially the opposite side of the extreme weather spectrum, the Helds also lost large numbers of animals in 2012 to starvation following a fire that burned acres of pasture. The fire destroyed miles of power lines in the area, leaving the ranch without electricity for weeks. During another spate of nearby fires in 2021, Held recalls ash falling from the sky, dusting the ground for days, and local schools set up as shelters for families who had to evacuate their homes. Smoke from the fire, coupled with a string of record-breaking triple-digit days that summer, didn’t keep Held in. There was ranch work that couldn’t wait.
When you’re in the moment, you just get on with daily life, you have to do everything you can to keep up with business or keep your livestock as safe as possible, and figure out issues like how to get them water, Held said. It’s hard to think about it more broadly in terms of climate change, but from studying this, I know that we need to make some big systemic changes to what we’re doing to not continue down the path we’re on.
The major effects on her family’s farming lifestyle, coupled with her growing interest in studying environmental science in college, led Held to contact Our Children’s Trust when she learned of the potential lawsuit.
When I first learned about climate change in high school, I saw it as something on the other side of the world, like polar bears and melting ice or coasts with sea level rise, Held said. Living in the United States, in a landlocked place, I didn’t really think about how it had affected me, even though I had seen these changes growing up.
To be a part of this case, it was great to insert my story into the larger climate change narrative and make connections through science and observing how my home plays into it, she said. Montana is a large emitter of fossil fuels and is contributing to climate change. I know it’s a larger global issue, but you can’t help but take responsibility.
Held doesn’t know if she would consider taking over the family ranch, saying she’s not sure what the future holds there. It’s a sentiment about the viability of the industry that he thinks is shared by many farmers and ranchers in the state, in fact it’s his lived experience on the family ranch that he thinks will allow the cause to resonate with a greater portion of Montanans who may not be as readily engaging in discussions about climate change
Statewide, however, Held believes Montana is still a place where residents value their neighbors and the land and resources entrusted to them, making it a unique place for this lawsuit to play out.
Those values could play into this conversation and make a change, she said. It is important that this case is happening here.
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