Ring misreads Montana

  Dear HCN,

I believe Ray Ring's piece on Montana environmental politics lacks a broader contextual framework that would provide insight and result in different conclusions.

The suggestion that Montana's progressive environmental legislation passed in the early 1970s due to greater collaboration with rural industries misses a big historical point. Although briefly acknowledged by Ring, the progressive environmental legislation enacted in Montana during the 1970s was not unique to Montana, nor is the current conservative bent of Montana's Legislature necessarily the result of reduced collaboration or a negative backlash against environmental protection.

The early 1970s were the high point for environmental legislation throughout the West and nation. Oregon passed its landmark statewide land-use planning laws in the 1970s. Idaho's congressional delegation helped to protect the River of No Return/Frank Church Wilderness. During the same period, we passed such national legislation as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, among other laws. Progressive environmental legislation was passed throughout the West and nation due to a unique set of historical factors that came together at this time, not because of greater collaboration or environmental concern, as Ring suggests.

By the same token, the conservative bent of Montana's governor and Legislature today is due to a number of complex factors that Ring doesn't even acknowledge. Demographic studies have documented that many of the recent immigrants who moved into Montana and other Western states like Idaho, Utah and Colorado are white, politically conservative folks fleeing California. While their overall numbers are small, their effect on low-population states like Montana is huge. Many of these new immigrants are not exactly hostile to environmental concerns, and may even be drawn to Montana for its natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities, but they generally come with a "less government regulation is better" attitude. This plays well with established rural-dominated extractive industries, hence helps to elect anti-government legislatures that seek to dismantle environmental laws.

But that doesn't mean that citizens in Montana fully support this frontal attack on environmental protection. Witness the statewide support of an initiative that banned cyanide heap leach mining - a law that would have never passed the far more conservative state legislature. As Ring acknowledges, Gov. Judy Martz barely won the election. She did not have a big mandate to dismantle Montana's environmental protection.

Whether greater collaboration between environmentalists and resource industries would achieve greater environmental protection I'll leave for others to argue, but I do believe that Ring misreads the Montana political landscape, and knocks Montana's many fine environmental organizations undeservedly.

George Wuerthner
Eugene, Oregon

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