Montana Viewpoint

May 12, 2008

Recently former Congressman Ron Marlenee and state Representative John Sinrud formed a group to counter what they view as the threat to development of Montana’s natural resources from “radical environmentalists” and “extremists.” In their press release they then essentially tied the Democratic Governor and Democratic legislators to that faction by stating, “… the anti-development/anti-growth crowd controls the governor’s mansion, has a razor-thin majority in the state Senate and is only one seat away from taking control of the State House.”

Whoa up guys, let’s take a more measured view of things. Last I heard the Governor was a big fan of coal development, done properly, and got his energy legislation through that same “anti-development/anti-growth” Senate and House. Just because some people give a care about doing things right doesn’t make them anti-anything. Montanans care about our state, economically and environmentally, and a good place to see that Montana’s current environmental laws were a non-partisan effort is by reading our Constitution.

Take a gander at Article II section 3: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment….”

And Article IX Section 1 on Natural Resources: “The state shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for future generations.” Speaking in support of that clause during debate at the 1972 Constitutional Convention C.B. McNeil, a Republican delegate from Polson said, “Our intention was to permit no degradation of the environment of Montana and to affirmatively require enhancement of what we have now.” [Verbatim Transcript of the 1972 Constitutional Convention, March 1, 1972]

Laws aren’t made in a vacuum. They are made in reaction to events, and Montana’s environmental laws were created in reaction to rivers that ran red with mine pollution, fish you could catch but couldn’t eat,  and air in Missoula that was, to be kind, “odiferous” from the Hoerner-Waldorf pulp mill that had been planted—unwisely—downwind of that city.

The Montana Water Policy Act and the Montana Environmental Policy Act were bipartisan efforts introduced by Republican George Darrow, from Billings. Some of the principle opponents were Democrats. Darrow was a petroleum geologist, a profession not exactly famous for embracing strict environmental guidelines, but he had eyes to see what had happened to a vast and once pristine expanse of prairie and mountain and thought it worth protecting.

I wrote in a 2004 article: “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 was truly and enduringly bipartisan and representative of the public will.”

By making the environmental issue a partisan election year topic Marlenee and Sinrud are using the same divisive tactics of those “radical environmentalists.” they disparage. Both parties are making the environment a black and white issue where you are either “for us or against us.”

The biggest complaint I hear about politicians is that we fight all the time. “Why can’t you just get along and get something done?” folks ask. Well, we could if we could take the election year politics out of the hands of political parties and their partisan minions. My experience is that most legislators are decent people who accept and respect each other’s right to have their own opinions.

Economic development and a clean and healthful environment are not mutually exclusive. The principal reasons why we don’t presently have the same resource economy in Montana as we once did are economic, not environmental. Some of the culprits are Canadian lumber imports; until recently, low metal prices; and federal underfunding BLM and Forest Service budgets to the point where they can’t perform any of their duties well. That is not to say that obstructionism has not had an effect. It has, but it’s only one of the elements, not THE element.

I’m a Democrat; I have run cattle, farmed, and harvest timber off my land and I take pride in making an effort to do it properly. I know Republican ranchers who have religiously voted against any environmental legislation who have a better sense of the ecology of their ranches and care for them better than any “radical environmentalist” would give them credit for.

In a word or two, I am sick of this kind of malarkey. You do not get things done by calling people names and creating confrontation. We are not elected to create stalemate; we are elected to solve problems for the common good. So let’s get to work.

Jim Elliott