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for people who care about the West

A shock to the system

  When Ray Rasker, director of the Sonoran Institute’s SocioEconomics program, traveled to Montana’s Flathead Valley recently to lead a training workshop for local environmentalists, he was pleasantly surprised. “I’d always remembered that the environmental community up there was very divided,” says Rasker, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., “but we had 50 enviros all in the same room, and they were getting along great. I asked them, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

John Stokes was going on. Stokes is northwestern Montana’s right-wing shock jock, who, as HCN editor in the field Ray Ring reports, regularly bashes environmentalists, women, federal agencies and anyone else associated with a progressive cause.

Stokes’ show has developed a large following, and his rhetoric has sparked some nasty behavior among his more ardent followers: Since his show began in 2000, environmentalists have had their property vandalized and their answering machines filled with threatening messages.

Adversity, though, can be a catalyst for positive change. In the Flathead, Stokes’ attacks have caused environmentalists to seriously consider their reputation as elitist whiners, and to focus on building the local alliances it takes to actually get something done. In the past, different groups sometimes found themselves at cross-purposes, and getting in each other’s way. But over the past several years, the conservation community has patched up its internal differences. Conservationists have also joined hands with business and community leaders to stand up to Stokes, and to move forward on several conservation initiatives.

Today, conservatives and liberals in the Flathead are working together to control development on state lands, plan for growth around cities, improve water quality in Flathead Lake, and secure new hiking and biking trails for recreation. It’s not exactly headline-grabbing stuff, but it’s the kind of quiet, inclusive progress that may someday become the hallmark of the West’s environmental movement.

Rasker, who helps Western communities and federal agencies plan for the future, says he’s seeing signs of similar progress in other conservative hotspots. “People just get sick and tired of the fed-bashing, environmentalist-bashing rhetoric, says Rasker. “They ask, ‘What has it ever done for us?’ ” The same might be said of environmentalists who focus more on problems than solutions. As Rasker says, “Whining is only effective for so long.”