Decision may help a granddaddy keep its teeth

 

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article,"Court reads the environment its rights."

The October supreme court ruling may help clarify the granddaddy of Montana's environmental laws, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA, which dates back to 1971. Modeled after the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), it mandates that state agencies consider a range of alternatives when a project comes across their desks, and that the public gets the chance to participate in that process.

But interpreting the law has been tricky, and during their last session, state legislators decided it needed to be pinned down. The job goes to the 17-member Environmental Quality Council, comprised of 12 legislators, four members of the public and a governor's representative. Central to the project, according to the council's administrative aide, Todd Everts, is resolving the question of whether MEPA is a substantive or procedural law. The question may seem esoteric, but pinning it down could revolutionize environmental politics in Montana.

In plain English, if the law is procedural, companies can be granted permits to cut timber or mine gold with no real obligation to protect the environment, as long as they've jumped through all the hoops set up by MEPA. If the law is substantive, it's the outcome, not just the process, that's important.

An example is the planned expansion of a two-lane highway through the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. According to Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center, the road "will have significant effects on the local economy, the environment and growth patterns. Under a substantive reading of the law, they'd have to do something to mitigate the harm - either build a smaller freeway or redesign it. Instead, (under a procedural reading) they're just going out and saying, we did MEPA, that's all we have to do."

As it is, says attorney Tom France, who served six years on the council, most environmental studies have a radically destructive alternative and an unrealistically benign alternative, "so the agency can come up with a compromise between the environmental straw man and rampant destruction and appear measured."

France says a substantive MEPA is better for everyone. "We need to respect the fact that private investors rightfully expect a return on their investment and to look at a range of alternatives that balance economic and environmental concerns," he says. "It's a more realistic range and a narrower range. That said, I think it would mean looking at the environment in terms of more benign ways of doing things."

Bud Clinch, director of the state's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, disagrees. In a letter to the committee reworking the law, he argued that a substantive MEPA would encourage public participation to such an extent that the permit process would become even more bogged down, expensive and litigious. "It would simplify the statute to have MEPA clearly procedural," he said.

The answers will be hard won, but the language of the recent ruling by the Montana Supreme Court suggests the constitution intended a substantive, enforceable reading of MEPA. Says Justice Terry Trieweiler, writing for the court: "Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on the surface of our state's rivers and streams before its farsighted environmental protections can be invoked."

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....