Five truckloads of hay were being unloaded in Miles City on Monday after a nearly 1,600-mile journey last weekend from Eau Clair, Pennsylvania.
The cross-country haul is the latest addition to more than 30 truckloads that have been donated this month to ranchers in Eastern Montana still reeling from the combined devastation of a historically severe drought and a summer filled with relentless wildfires.
"These ranches have been in these families for years, and it's their livelihood," said Perry Altmire Jr., a resident of the tiny Western Pennsylvania town who has spearheaded the "PA for Montana" effort to coordinate and deliver hay donations to the region.
"It just seemed to be something that our community got on board with. We're out in the country, too, not quite like you guys are out here, but it was the local small farms that donated the hay."
While he acknowledges the urgency and severity of the hurricane-driven disasters still playing out in the Southeast, Altmire said he felt that Montana was getting short shrift in terms of national media coverage. Over the Labor Day weekend, he discussed the state's plight with his son, Chad Carmichael, who is stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.
"We just wanted to get it out that there's national media attention for the hurricanes, and nobody's paying attention to the million acres that burned in Montana," said Carmichael, who runs a group called "Montana Outdoor Addicts" with his wife and friends. "With all the hunting we do and the permission we get (to hunt) on ranchers' properties, I can imagine what it takes to keep going out there."
So on the Sunday before Labor Day, Altmire figured he'd throw a post up on the Facebook page for his company, Altmire Trucking, Inc., to see if there was any local interest in helping out.
"By Wednesday morning we had over 10,000 views and it just kind of took off," Altmire said. "People just started donating anything, from monetary donations to loads of hay."
The challenge, he said, was getting enough trucks and drivers together to haul the bales to Montana. He recruited the owner of another local trucking company, Wayne Sell, along with three of his drivers, to drive five trucks across most of the country. But the hay donations have outpaced their ability to get the bales to their destination.
That problem has plagued the larger hay-donation effort as well, said Andy Fjeseth, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Agriculture. In response to the crisis faced by Eastern Montana ranchers, the state extended its annual hay lottery earlier this month, using the existing system to get hay donations where they are needed.
"There's been an outpouring of support" since the lottery was set up Sept. 9, Fjeseth said. Donations to the department have come in from as far away as Wisconsin, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and many states in between, he added.
But overall, the state is still struggling to provide the logistical support needed to haul hay from so many far-flung locations. Altmire said the journey cost him about $1,400 in transportation costs, one way, per load.
Coming from Pennsylvania, which has been enjoying a warm spell for the past week, he said it was "a pretty good shock on the body" when he rolled into Miles City Sunday and the mercury was hovering in the upper 30s.
"But it's beautiful out here, and it's a shame for the loss that's happened," Altmire said. "It was just time to do something good and give back."
The Montana Stockgrowers Association has been assisting the state by handling monetary donations to help cover transportation costs for hay lottery donations. To donate money to the organization's fund, call 406-442-3420.
Those interested in donating feed to Montana's hay lottery program can call the state Drought Assistance Hotline at 844-515-1571.
For more information about the PA for Montana Fire Victims nonprofit group or to donate, call Altmire at 724-791-2200.