Bad moon rising

How Montana's once-mighty progressive coalition has waned

  • ONCE POWERFUL: Hauling coal in Decker, Montana, around1975

    Terrence Moore
  • Golden Sunlight Mine

    Mineral Policy Center
  • PEOPLE'S CONVENTION: The 100 delegates who wrote a newConstitution for Montana in 1972

    Montana Historical Society photo, Helena
  • Montana Gov. Judy Martz

  • Graph: Montana's economic rank among the states per capitaincome

    Diane Sylvain
  • SIGNS OF RESISTANCE: Members of the Buffalo Field Campaignprotest the killing of Yellowstone National Park bison by theMontana Department of Livestock near West Yellowstone,Montana

    William Campbell
  • A protester places a "Boycott Gold" bumper sticker on thesign at the entrance to a Montana gold mine

    HCN file photo
  • Terry Whiteside, Alliance for Rail Competition

  • Map of Montana's new economy cities (environmentalmovement headquarters)

    Diane Sylvain

Bob Campbell still remembers how he came to write the full moon into Montana's Constitution. The inspiration came on a cold night in January 1972, as he drove out of Helena on a lonely, snowpacked gravel road.

It was late and he was headed to a cabin up a mountain canyon. About midnight, as he came around a corner, the sight hit him: the giant full moon over a fresh, undisturbed snowfield.

"The moonlight! And how the fresh flakes were glinting! It was just stunning," he recalls. "I had to stop to take it in. I asked myself, 'What makes this so beautiful?' And I realized, it was the quiet."

The next morning, back at work in the state capitol, Campbell wrote the moonlight's "quiet beauty" into a draft of the preamble for Montana's new Constitution. Within a few weeks, he and 99 fellow delegates to the constitutional convention agreed the new mission statement should begin with these lyrics:

"We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains ... do ordain and establish this Constitution."

The new Constitution listed "inalienable rights" held by Montanans; first on the list was "the right to a clean and healthful environment." During the same time, from 1971 to 1976, Montanans worked in a bipartisan fashion through their Legislature and statewide initiatives to pass a body of fundamental laws, such as the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which required broad analysis of the effects of any development the state was involved in.

The laws didn't just squeak by. The Environmental Policy Act was approved unanimously in the Republican-controlled Montana House of Representatives and with only a single dissenter in the Democrat-controlled Senate. More than a half-dozen other new state laws concerned water use and subdivisions; conservation easements; tough standards on new industrial plants and mine reclamation; stiff taxes on development of coal, oil, gas and hardrock minerals; and a trust fund to pay for environmental restoration.

It may be the most impressive run of environmental protections any state has agreed on in such a brief period. And when the run began, in the entire 145,000-square-mile state of Montana there was only one professional full-time environmental activist - a guy working for the Montana Wildlife Federation. Campbell, a recent law school graduate, wasn't a member of any group.

Fast forward to Montana today. At least 35 environmental groups employ several hundred full-time staffers in Montana, each group concentrating on wilderness or rivers or predators or some other specialty. In addition, there are groups more difficult to classify, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, land trusts and think tanks. They add several hundred more pros to the Montana mission.

Yet Montana's environmental politics seem to lie in ruins now. Five straight legislative sessions over the past decade have attacked the state's fundamental environmental laws, rolling back standards for industrial plants, mine-water quality, and public participation in decisions. The state's overarching Environmental Policy Act was gutted last year by five new laws that skewered it from different angles (HCN, 9/24/01: Montana guts a green law). And for their top leadership position, Montanans have elected Gov. Judy Martz, who has vowed to "be a lapdog of industry."

The question is worth asking, because its answer may bear on how environmentalists around the West make their strategy: How did Montana get from there to here?

"Confluence of identity"

When you ask Montana environmentalists what has changed, they point to Ronald Reagan's legacy and the rightward lurch of the whole West, and all the moneyed, conservative newcomers moving in. They point to public revulsion over Bill Clinton's sex life, and the reclassifying of environmentalists in the Democratic Party tatters. They even point to the Christian Coalition for going door-to-door, relentlessly pushing its candidates.

But if you don't settle for the easy answer - if you say, OK, those are the givens, wasn't there anything that people in the movement could have done to maintain momentum? - you scratch a deeper answer.

It has to do with Montanans' collective character - rural-thinking, rooted to an immense landscape, and every once in a while rebelling against domination by external forces.

That collective character worked to get environmentalism into motion in Montana in the early 1970s, and eventually it worked the other way.

Back then, Montanans were just wriggling out from under the heel of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. For eight decades the company had dominated the state; it owned not only the world-class mines and smelters around Butte, but also much of Montana's timberland, mills and daily newspapers.

Montanans could see the results of Anaconda's rule - in between the scenery, there were mountains of tailings and slag, dead waters, and air pollution that singed pines and killed livestock. There had been little organized opposition to the devastation, few environmental groups to protest.

In 1971, the Montana Wildlife Federation had its lone full-time staffer, Don Aldrich, working mostly hook-and-bullet issues. The Montana Wilderness Association was all volunteer. But Anaconda's Montana copper was thinning out, the company had suffered an effective strike and was struggling to expand overseas. With the mining giant's grip weakened, suddenly Montana could breathe.

At the same time, a new threat cut across differences between people: Amid a national energy crisis, a juggernaut of new mining, railroad and power companies wanted to peel back the plains of Montana and neighboring states to strip-mine coal and install 36 coal-fired power plants.

Montanans agreed on the need to protect their landscape from further assault. They elected Campbell and the other delegates to the constitutional convention; then, voters statewide approved the new Constitution with the bedrock environmental wording.

Bill Bryan, a key organizer back then, sums it up: "It was a citizens' movement, not an environmental movement."

The citizens' movement had numerous leaders, including cattle ranchers and grain farmers, the AFL-CIO labor unions, the teachers' union, women's groups, seniors' groups, Indian groups, and advocates for the poor and needy.

Clyde Jarvis did a fiery daily radio show during the legislative sessions, carried on stations across the state, often encouraging farmers and others to get involved in environmental issues.

"We reported on the Legislature, we called names (reported frankly on who was doing what), we got people involved in the Legislature," recalls Jarvis, who was president of the Montana Farmers Union - about 8,000 families raising grain and considering themselves progressives - during that organization's peak in the '70s.

"There was a confluence of Montanans' identity and environmental care," recalls Dan Kemmis, a state legislator from 1975 to 1984. "The two were, to a large extent, seen as concurrent, or at least overlapping."

New environmental groups sprang up and became an immediate force, including the rancher-based Northern Plains Resource Council in 1971, and the Montana Environmental Information Center, which organized in 1973 to lobby the Legislature.

The political coalition's strength was based on keeping the various interests united. "We testified for so much environmental legislation, and the environmental groups would testify on labor legislation," says Jim Murray, who headed the state AFL-CIO during the '70s and '80s. "The Farmers Union did, too. We worked together."

With such cross-bracing, they held off most of the coal push. Only a few power plants were built, and though coal mining ramped up, it was a small fraction of what happened in Wyoming. The movement continued to make gains. Along with Montana's strip-mine reclamation law and the other pioneering laws passed in the early 1970s, voters statewide approved the coal severance tax in 1976. A 1978 initiative made it just about impossible to build a nuclear power plant. A 1980 initiative effectively banned radioactive tailings. A Hardrock Mining Impact Act required mining companies to pay up-front for schools, sewers, and other services for miners; 1985 laws dealt with toxics; and 1991 laws dealt with landfills.

The Montana environmental groups grew and proliferated, to include American Wildlands (founded in 1979), the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (1983), Alliance for the Wild Rockies (1988), the Ecology Center (1988), Wilderness Watch (1989), Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers (1990), Predator Project (1991), the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads (1995) and Women's Voices for the Earth (1995). National groups opened Montana branches, including the Wilderness Society (late 1980s), Earthjustice (1993) and the Sierra Club (opened 1994, and grown to at least 10 staffers today).

What had begun as a citizens' movement grew to become an environmental movement, strong enough to try to stand on its own.

Montana broken into pieces

While resistance to runaway industrial development had driven the state politics, beginning in the late 1980s, a new sentiment arose. It also arose from economic issues, but this time, it was fear of economic collapse.

The pillars that had always held up Montana - agriculture, mining and logging - cracked all at once, as a national recession cut demand for raw materials, and global competition kicked in. Average per capita income plunged relative to other states, down to 45th by 1990. Thousands of Montanans fled, and the overall population grew so slowly that the state lost one of its U.S. House of Representative seats with the 1990 census. State government bled, with tax collections down and essential services, such as schools and workers compensation, on the chopping block.

The economic stress helped break the political coalition into pieces. The labor unions, hit by mechanization and union-busting, saw their memberships decline - notably in the mines, forests and mills. The unions had to concentrate on what their members needed. The teachers' union concentrated on state funding for education, period. The Farmers Union, founded on small-acreage homesteaders, withered as the farms were consolidated into larger, subsidized operations.

The environmental groups became the strongest component of the coalition, but they pulled back also, reluctant to compromise. Many new environmental groups had never even been part of the coalition.

The environmentalists had choices that the other coalition members - more tied to Montana's problems - didn't have. They could work the courts and bureaucratic appeals instead of state politics, and because many environmental issues centered on the federal land that is 29 percent of Montana, they could especially work the federal politics.

With the friendly Clinton administration in the White House, the movement got the feds to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park, buy out the New World gold mine on the edge of the park (HCN, 2/12/01: Mr. Babbitt's wild ride), and cough up many more millions of dollars to buy or reserve other land for environmental reasons. Clinton went out in a blaze, creating the Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the roadless forest initiative, which temporarily protected another 6 million acres in Montana.

But within Montana, where fear over the economy continued to be the driver, environmentalists didn't have much of a strategy. Their economic plan for Montana amounted to preserving the private as well as the public landscape as economic assets. Theirs was the New Economy based on in-migration and amenities. Their economic assumption was: If we don't build it, they will come.

So far, that hasn't been enough. Montana's economic free-fall stabilized by the early '90s, but the state's economy was broken in half. The university regions, centered in Bozeman and Missoula, and smaller destination resort towns began making a New Economy, mostly in western Montana; the other half of Montana - the countryside of agriculture, logging and mining - continued to stagnate or die.

State politics became a dogfight. In the Legislature, which generally meets every other year, a term-limits measure approved by voters began to take effect in 1993, removing experienced leadership. A new kind of Republican Party took power under smooth-talking, cowboy-booted Gov. Marc Racicot - an anti-regulation party.

Working for the mining industry, the '93 and '95 Legislatures attacked the state's tough water-quality standards - mine pollution could be diluted by "mixing zones," fewer streams would be protected by "nondegradation" standards, and reclamation bonds were reduced. State standards could no longer be tougher than federal standards.

Trying to conjure up cheaper electricity for heavy industries, the 1997 Legislature took the huge risk of deregulating the state's electricity utilities, even though decades of regulating the dams and coal-fired power plants had given consumers some of the cheapest rates in the country.

The 1999 Legislature kept up the drumbeat for industrial development, including authorizing a tax credit of up to $20 million for any new mine.

The 2000 election for governor became a showdown between the heritage of the 1970s and the deregulation direction. Environmentalists could not have scripted a more favorable match. Democrat Mark O'Keefe had worked as a tour-bus driver in Glacier National Park, founded a backcountry guiding service, and held a University of Montana master's degree in environmental science. He had solid political experience, including eight years as state auditor, where he'd been a consumer advocate. And he had money; married to an heiress, he poured more than $2 million of his family money into a barrage of multimedia ads and color handbills dropped on 170,000 Montana doorsteps.

Republican candidate Judy Martz held a high school degree. She touted her experience as a speed skater in the 1964 Olympics and her career running a garbage-hauling company in Butte. Her elected-office experience was limited to a term as Racicot's second lieutenant governor. She had trouble finding campaign money. By the end, her campaign was outspent 3-to-1.

But Martz won 51 percent of the vote. While the margin was only a few thousand votes, her geographic reach was impressive - she won 45 of the 56 counties, including almost all the rural counties and the urban counties that include Billings and Kalispell.

Many factors influence an election, but Martz led with the anti-environmentalist, pro-job card. A month after her election, when she put her philosophy in the coarsest terms, "I'll be a lapdog of industry," a statewide poll found that 41 percent of Montanans agreed outright with her; another 16 percent were undecided.

With Martz's rhetoric setting the tone, the 2001 Legislature attacked the Montana Environmental Policy Act, and greased the wheels for potential new development in numerous other ways, including offering big tax breaks to new power plants while exempting them from fundamental environmental review.

Today in Montana, out-of-state energy companies have at least seven new coal- or gas-fired power plants on the drawing boards or under development, to be fed by increased coal mining. If all the plants get built, the state will be producing more than four times as much power as Montanans need.

There is also a plan to tap Montana's coalbed methane by drilling thousands of wells over thousands of square miles, and another plan to offer 17,000 acres of state land along the Rocky Mountain Front for oil and gas leasing * in the same area where leasing is on hold in the national forest.

Career environmentalists

It took 30 years for the pendulum to swing, but now the energy industry has things in Montana mostly its way.

"We've been sitting on the natural resources. With the obstructionists in our way on a daily basis, we just haven't been able to get to them," Martz told 300 people gathered in the small town of Roundup in October. She was announcing a proposal for two coal-fired power plants at the mouth of a revived coal mine in the nearby Bull Mountains, and a 35-mile rail spur to connect to the mainline, making it possible to ship surplus coal as far as Japan.

The reaction in Roundup, the seat of one of the state's poorest counties, was mostly cheers. The town was founded on coal mining, boomed on that and oil and gas, then busted. Now, it's also ground zero for the state's drought, and even local agriculture is down and out. In the town's three downtown blocks, 15 buildings stand vacant. A New Economy based on amenities or high tech isn't likely anytime soon; the mountains around town are mostly privately owned. The coal project would mean hundreds of high-paying jobs - probably union jobs.

The plight of Roundup, and hundreds of communities like it, is hard to see from the three bustling small cities where most Montana environmental groups have set up their offices. The movement is headquartered almost entirely in the capital, Helena, and the two university towns - efficiently located, but distant from the grass roots and the economic pain. Some groups do maintain local chapters around the state, but by and large the three New Economy cities are where the staff clusters.

Being a professional environmentalist has become a career, independent of Montana's economy. While budgets vary, with some groups just scraping by, today in at least one case, the head of a healthy Montana environmental group with 20-some staffers can make $90,000 in annual salary - $2,000 more than the governor, who is in charge of 9,600 staffers.

Despite the appearance of strength, the groups haven't recruited all that many Montana members. Some groups don't bother recruiting members, and for many of the rest, significant slices of the membership are out-of-staters who care about Montana but can't vote in its elections. The biggest Montana-based activist group, the Montana Wildlife Federation, has 4,000 Montana members and 4,000 out-of-state members.

Much of the financing for the environmental groups also comes from out-of-state, from donors and foundations, which send money to Montana to fight the big national battles.

"There hasn't been that pressure of expanding the base and bringing in more people as members like they did in the beginning - that's how they raised money and developed clout back then," says Michael Schechtman, who ran a hub of the Montana movement, the Northern Rockies Action Group, in the 1980s. "The (environmental) groups are working hard and take their memberships seriously, but they haven't expanded their circle and haven't tapped all the parts of the community that care about these issues."

Schechtman, who is now director of the Big Sky Institute for Advancement of Nonprofits, based in Helena, adds, "You look at the polls that show over and over (that) most Montanans support environmental causes, but when you look at the size of the memberships of these groups, the numbers just don't match up at all."

Some of the problem is structural. Some groups are regional, focusing on the whole Northern Rockies from Montana offices. The group most focused on Montana politics, the Montana Environmental Information Center, with about 3,000 members in-state and 1,000 scattered across 48 other states, has been effective lobbying the Legislature and monitoring the state agencies. But it has not rebuilt a coalition of voters statewide.

"MEIC's niche in the conservation movement is lobbying the Legislature and watchdogging the agencies in how they carry out the laws," says Jim Jensen, head of MEIC since 1985. "We don't do anything in the electoral realm" other than initiatives put directly to the voters.

Tax-exempt nonprofits are prohibited from backing candidates directly, but back when Montana's environmentalists maintained the broad coalition that included agriculture and the unions, they organized a political action committee to funnel money into campaigns in both political parties. It was called MONTCEL (Montana Committee for an Effective Legislature) and it had a lobbying arm, called MAPP (Montana Alliance for Progressive Policy).

Each interest group in the coalition was asked to put a member on the MONTCEL board of directors and campaign for MONTCEL candidates. "We were highly successful in legislative races and primaries, including Republican primaries," says Gail Stoltz, who grew up on a ranch, served in the Legislature, then headed the coalition in the mid-1980s. "It was one of the most successful strategies I've ever worked on," says Stoltz, who now works for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.

The MAPP/MONTCEL coalition also held an annual convention of environmental leaders to plan strategy, called the Montana Conservation Summit, which took the allies' various issues into account.

"We compiled a booklet listing the five or 10 major issues of each constituency and distributed it widely within the ranks of each group, for the purpose of cross-educating," says Tony Jewett, who ran the coalition in the early 1980s and now runs the National Parks and Conservation Association Montana branch. "The groups understood they shared common values. That was incredibly effective. We institutionalized the dialogue between distinct constituencies, to identify common goals. We gained political strength and leveraged that."

MAPP/MONTCEL dissolved in the early 1990s, and for most of the decade nothing was created to replace it. The environmental movement mostly loaded its state politics on the Democratic Party. Though there are many Republicans involved in environmental groups, the Republican Party was generally left alone to knock off its moderates in its primaries.

It's not as simple as Democrats vs. Republicans. Party allegiances in Montana are not strong. According to exit polls in Martz's election, people identified themselves as Republicans over Democrats by a margin of 38-28 percent, which leaves 34 percent - the independents - up for grabs.

'They don't think strategically'

The people who were leaders when the progressive coalition was alive and well have a perspective on what's changed.

"We realized the day couldn't be won by conservationists alone," says Schechtman. "We were building a social movement, trying to build a progressive majority."

The environmental movement is composed of dedicated people with high goals, often backed by science. But without the coalition, and with so many environmental groups pressing individual agendas, some adopt all-or-nothing stands that seem to oppose just about every mine or every timber sale or every rancher who tries anything.

Over the years, it has become more likely that one or another of the groups will irritate the average voter, who may respond by lumping all environmentalists together as the enemy.

"Now I see that with Montana's environmentalists, there's a lot of splintering," Stoltz says. "I don't know who pulls them together and who has the long-term view. ... They don't put their resources into any broader message."

Instead of a broad message, the movement seems to go against logging and mining, where the old union allies work. In wanting prairie dogs protected, wolves brought back, grizzlies protected, riparian areas protected, the movement seems to go against another old ally, ranchers. It goes against ORV and snowmobile drivers, who value the outdoors in a different way. It goes against commercial fishing guides making a living on some rivers, and against farmers who try to survive by charging money for hunting and fishing access.

"The environmental movement has gotten more sophisticated and better funded. But it's still a conservative movement, dealing with land rather than people," says Mike Clark, who ran several national environmental groups during the 1980s, then ran the Greater Yellowstone Coalition during the 1990s, and now runs a one-man shop in Bozeman called Yellowstone Heritage Inc. "The fundamental story of the environmental movement in Montana is, it's never been willing to systematically reach out beyond itself. ... Movements come down to leadership, and that's what happened."

Professional environmentalists are "more hairshirts than they are politicians. They don't think strategically," says Bill Bryan, who organized and ran the Northern Rockies Action Group from 1973 to 1981, helped organize MONTCEL, and now runs an adventure-tourism business based in Bozeman.

Forming coalitions and winning elections are laborious, door-to-door efforts that also require compromises. You have to ask voters what they care about and find enough common ground to build a majority around shared concerns, rather than single issues.

"Instead of 'How do I get my views across?' think in terms of 'How do I create a political majority that by and large reflects my views?' " Bryan says. "Because that's how you win."

"An import and an imposition"

State politics matter when Montana's fundamental laws are being rolled back; and because blood reddens the snow when the state government calls for the slaughter of thousands of bison that stray from Yellowstone Park.

State politics matter when Montana's governor comes out opposing the environmental movement on snowmobiling in Yellowstone, the roadless forest initiative, the new Missouri Breaks National Monument, and drilling along the Rocky Mountain Front, because the governor will always seem to represent the sentiment of most Montanans.

State politics also matter when the federal politics must run through obstacles such as the Bush administration.

But it seems that the state politics have to do mostly with how Montanans view themselves. In the 1970s and 1980s, Montanans saw themselves fighting for their state against big extractive corporations. Today, many see themselves fighting against what they think of as an alien movement.

"As the environmental movement has gained strength, gained its own identity, many people felt they had to choose between being an environmentalist and a Montanan," says Kemmis, who now heads the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula. "That's because many Montanans have developed a sense that environmentalism is coming at them from outside Montana. So much of it feels like an import and an imposition."

New tools being created

Things are not all bad. Even today, the environmental movement in Montana isn't reduced to the level of begging that you find in Arizona or Utah state politics.

Even in the hostile Legislatures since 1993, the Montana groups eked out incremental laws for river restoration money, primitive state parks, island state parks, instream leasing for trout, and a bit more subdivision planning. Bypassing the Legislature altogether, the Montana Environmental Information Center won victories that movements in other states would love to see - an initiative in 1998 that banned cyanide heap-leach gold mining, and a Montana Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that the "clean and healthful environment" wording in the state Constitution is enforceable (HCN, 12/6/99: Court reads the environment its rights).

There are vestiges of the coalition politics on single issues, as in 1996, when the Montana Wildlife Federation endorsed a statewide initiative to raise the minimum wage to help the working poor (an initiative that failed).

Even in the same election that installed Martz, Montana voters also approved an initiative intended to phase out game farms.

But generally, as Anne Hedges at MEIC says, "We've been playing defense."

By now, some in the environmental movement recognize that new political tools are needed.

Montana Conservation Voters, an affiliate of the National League of Conservation Voters, was formally organized in 1999 to endorse candidates in primaries as well as general elections, and has a PAC to funnel campaign contributions.

"We want a year-round program to keep scrutiny on legislators, educate the public and recruit and develop good environmental legislators," says executive director Theresa Keaveny.

The Center for Environmental Politics, organized in 1998, has two full-timers in its Missoula headquarters and part-timers in five field offices. "We came to the conclusion that all roads lead to the political process," says executive director Dan Funsch. "The movement has been lacking a political component."

The Center analyzes election returns down to precincts, and recruits people to run for planning boards and open-space committees; once green candidates get positioned like that, they can be groomed to run for higher offices.

"We looked at what the Christian Coalition did in the 1980s, infiltrating school boards and advisory positions, and getting their members really active within the political parties - that's essentially the model we use," Funsch says. "It's a long-term strategy. We need to start at the grassroots level."

The Montana Smart Growth Coalition was organized in Helena just last year and is trying to build a broad coalition around that issue.

Attempting to revive the "blue-collar, green-collar" alliance, the Montana Environmental Information Center has affiliated with a new labor group, the Montana Progressive Labor Caucus.

There's also talk of a new think tank in Helena to rebuild progressive politics.

"We haven't had people sitting around thinking about this stuff, like the right wing has," Funsch says. "Our movement has lacked the intellectual infrastructure to do this kind of forward thinking."

The intellectual infrastructure, if it gets organized, should wrap its arms around this simple statistic, which isn't in the discussion much yet: Even today, half the people in Montana live in towns smaller than 5,000, or in no town at all. That makes Montana even more rural than Wyoming.

But today's environmental movement reaches into rural Montana only in a limited fashion - mostly by working with cooperative landowners on easements, weeds and subdivision resistance. With that kind of outreach, the movement doesn't compromise much or win many votes.

Remember the railroad

To get an idea of what might work, trace a thread into rural Montana that wouldn't even register with most of the state's environmentalists today: railroads.

Only one major railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, serves Montana today. It's a classic monopoly with a stranglehold on Montana's grain farmers. "Montana has the highest rail-shipping rates in the nation, because it's the most monopolized state," says Terry Whiteside, a Billings attorney who consults with the Farmers Union and presses the issue with the Interstate Commerce Commission and Congress.

It's so bad, farmers in Nebraska or Minnesota can ship their grain all the way to the Seattle port, on the rail line that comes through Billings, cheaper than farmers around Billings can ship to Seattle. And every so often, Whiteside says, when the railroad decides to squeeze Montana rates even higher, it "takes whatever new profit Montana farmers have from increased efficiencies."

Whiteside runs a group called the Alliance for Rail Competition, and one of its goals is establishing a system of arbitration that would give the farmers more power to negotiate rates. Are there any environmentalists who stand with the farmers on this issue?

"We've seen environmentalists get together with farmers to try to stop the Tongue River Railroad (a spur proposed to haul coal across southeastern Montana)," Whiteside says. "But we don't see environmentalists being proactive now to help farmers get lower rates and better service."

Environmentalists used to stand with farmers on the railroad issue. They stood together trying to fight the merger of three railroads to form the Burlington Northern in 1970, and again when BN killed off its final competitor in Montana in the late 1970s. "The issues back then were the railroads, and strip-mining, and the coal plants," recalls Jarvis, then the president of the Farmers Union.

To regain their influence within Montana, environmentalists have two choices now. They can keep betting on the vitality of the New Economy and the continuing decline of the Old Economy, assuming that eventually tourism and high tech and early retirees will dominate the state - and that it will be good for the environment.

Or environmentalists can again think in terms of creating, and then becoming part of, a broad coalition across the landscape, which means worrying about the railroad's lock on farmers, presenting an economic plan that includes all Montanans, and compromising enough to quit making enemies out of potential allies.

"Environmentalists are just starting to realize we need a plan," Funsch says. "And no one is going to do it for us. We need to do it."

 Ray Ring is High Country News' Northern Rockies editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He was formerly assistant managing editor for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and during 1994, he was HCN's senior editor.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

'We don't rest ... on economics'

- 'We better start moving ahead'

- Ranchers' group adopts practical strategy


  • Center for Environmental Politics, in Missoula,, 406/543-6154;
  • Montana Conservation Voters, in Billings,, 406/254-1593;
  • Montana Environmental Information Center, in Helena,, 406/443-2520;
  • Northern Plains Resource Council, in Billings,, 406/248-1154;
  • Alliance for Rail Competition, in Billings,, chairman Terry hiteside, 406/245-5132.
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