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Montana Viewpoint
THE POLITICAL IRONY OF MONTANA’S ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS

September 13, 2004 

The currents of change in political philosophy are nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the history of Montana’s major environmental protection law, MEPA—the Montana Environmental Policy Act. Originally conceived and passed by Republicans and opposed by many Democrats, it is now embraced by Democrats and opposed by most Republicans. Indeed, even the major national environmental protection laws were initiated in Republican administrations in the 1970s. 

A few days ago I had a visit with George Darrow, the man who wrote MEPA. Darrow now lives on an old ranch outside of Bigfork, but lived in Billings when he was a Republican State Representative in the late 60s and early 70s. He is a retired petroleum geologist. We had talked on the telephone, but I hadn’t ever had an opportunity to spend time with him. It was an education in political paradoxes. 

In 1970, encouraged by the conspicuous signing of the National Environmental Policy Act by President Nixon, Darrow began work on a similar bill that would be Montana's version. Grudgingly supported by Democratic Governor Forrest Anderson, MEPA sailed through the Legislature and was signed into law. Essentially the Act was a policy statement—“a feel-good bill”—and as such was never seriously opposed, but when the time came to pass a separate bill to fund the enforcement agency that was created by MEPA—the Environmental Quality Council, or EQC—the fur hit the fan. 

Funding the EQC was vigorously, almost fanatically, opposed by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the Montana Power Company, the twin juggernauts of Montana politics. They were headquartered in Butte, and Butte was not just a heavily Democratic town, it was entirely Democratic. Many Democrats fiercely opposed funding for the EQC, and according to Darrow, Butte legislators consulted with company lobbyists before each vote.  

After much parliamentary maneuvering, during which the bill to fund MEPA was killed three times and resuscitated three, it passed the Republican controlled House by 72-27 with many Democrats and a few Republicans voting against it. It was passed by the Democrat controlled Senate, and Anderson, although he considered a veto, signed it into law. 

Today the EQC is made up of four Republican and four Democratic legislators and four members of the public appointed by the Governor. They conduct their work smoothly and without rancor. 

The year 1971 saw enactment of other landmark legislation that was subjected to similarly intense political scrutiny, the Metal Mines Reclamation Act, the bill authorizing the 1972 Constitutional Convention, and an ill-fated sales tax bill which was put to a citizen vote only to be demolished two to one. 

Darrow considers 1971 a watershed year in Montana history without political parallel; firstly because a politically divided legislature was able to pass major, controversial legislation of great importance. The legislation received the highest scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans, and as such were truly and enduringly bipartisan and representative of the public will. 

Secondly, and most important, for the first time since statehood a citizen legislature was able to break the iron grip that the Anaconda Company and the Montana Power Company had on the legislative process and the government of the state of Montana. 

We often forget that laws are not generated in a vacuum, but are a response to an incident or issue of public concern. In 1971 many Montana streams were terribly polluted, and the flesh of the fish that survived the polluted waters contained arsenic and other toxic metals which had been released into the water by mining activities. 

We don’t see pollution like that anymore because of the cleanup inaugurated by MEPA and the federal National Environmental Protection Act. Because we don’t see it, we’re forgetful that it ever existed and some now view MEPA and other environmental laws as outdated and overly restrictive.

The success of MEPA in cleaning up Montana’s air and streams has enabled us to forget Montana’s polluted past and the very reason for passing it in the first place. 

These days Republicans argue against laws like MEPA and its ilk, and Democrats argue for them; and George Darrow scratches his head in mild consternation. Darrow feels his beliefs are no longer representative of today’s mainstream Republican ideals, and mourns the change.  

What part of the Republican ideology does Darrow embrace, I asked, what made him a Republican? The two word answer came like a shot without the least hesitation—“Teddy Roosevelt.” 

 

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620

jim@jimelliott.org