I read with interest Ray Ring's article on environmentalism in Montana (HCN, 12/17/01: Bad moon rising) and have followed the comments others have made. Mr. Ring and all the writers make good points, but they all miss one reason environmental concerns have lost local support. To use Clinton's campaign motto - "It's the economy, stupid!"
The economic conditions in Montana now are different than those that existed in the 1970s, when I was growing up there. Then, the economy was stronger and there was more support for environmental protection. Montana has failed to diversify its economy and is still too dependent on the declining extractive industries of agriculture, logging and mining. The balance of Montana's population feels the economic impact of the decline of the extractive industries and they are looking for some reason that things have changed for the worse. It is difficult to see and understand some of the shifts in the national and worldwide economy when you live in an area as isolated as Montana. This leaves the general population feeling that things are out of their control, hence the rise in the popularity of anti-government sentiments and conspiracy theories.
The environmental movement has focused so much on the fight over what we are against that we have not done a good job of communicating what we are attempting to create. Consequently, people negatively impacted by environmental protection easily accept the characterizations of environmentalists that opposing forces present. In economically depressed areas such as Montana, environmental-protection policies need to be tied to economic-growth policies for the efforts to succeed. Nothing is going to improve until local leadership helps the rural areas move into the current economy, promotes education (unlike the current governor of Montana) and restores faith in government by not favoring the industries that extract natural resources but do not leave capital and profits in the state.
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