Montana State University to local environmentalists: Get lost!

  • George Wuerthner and daughter, Summer

    Mollie Matteson

In an editorial in their monthly newsletter, which I'll call the Big Sky Cow Pie, the Montana Stockgrowers Association branded me the "Ralph Nader of the West." It was not meant as a compliment. I'm not exactly sure what set them off. Perhaps it was something I'd said while president of the National Wolf Growers Association about wanting to restore wolves not only to Yellowstone, but throughout the West. Maybe they didn't like my slogan praising the health benefits of eating meat - -Beef, real food for real dead people." Maybe it's because I have been known to say, in an unguarded moment, that the rancher's cherished lifestyle should more appropriately be called a "deathstyle," and that the dewatered rivers, wolfless mountains, and trashed riparian zones are epitaphs and tombstones to their way of life.

But don't get me wrong. I don't hate ranchers. You almost have to admire them. Ranchers are trying to do the impossible - raise a water-loving, slow-moving, dim-witted animal in a land that often has more cactus than grass, and more sand than water. To do it without destroying a lot of the West's natural landscapes and biodiversity is impossible. Still they persevere. It's a tough, thankless job. At least they don't have my thanks for trying.

But I'm just as guilty of tilting at windmills. I keep thinking that people will eventually reject the ranchers and their myths. Yet even National Public Radio is now featuring "cowboy commentator" Baxter Black. Don Quixote and I have much in common.

A few years back I decided that I might go back to school. I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Montana State University, a land-grant institution in Bozeman. With the assistance of some progressive and enlightened faculty I had helped to write a successful grant proposal to conduct a multi-disciplinary study in Montana. The research had a regional focus and was designed to look at the broad question of sustainable ecosystems and economics. I was delighted that things seemed to be working out. The research topic was of real interest to me; I had grant money to pursue it; I had supportive faculty.

About a month before the beginning of my first semester, I got a call from one of the professors at school. Somehow word had gotten out that I was going to be attending Montana State. I was told a lot of people were not too pleased about it, particularly in the School of Agriculture and among some members of the Stockgrowers Association. They didn't like my "political views."

There was a "concern" that the mere presence of the Ralph Nader of the West at Montana State might jeopardize relationships with funding organizations and the state legislature. The legislature funds a lot of the ag school projects. A lot of the legislators are farmers and ranchers. Some even read the Big Sky Cow Pie. They might know the Ralph Nader of the West.

Pressure was applied. Their first instinct was to cut state funding for my project. After a hasty review it was discovered that unlike most people in agriculture, my grant was fully funded by a private foundation.

Faculty members tried a different tack. They went to the department head arguing that I didn't have enough of a science background to be admitted into the program. The critics were silenced when it was learned that I had more ecology and science courses than they did.

A new attack was launched. The department head informed my committee members that multi-disciplinary studies lacked "scientific rigor." I pointed out that I hadn't done the research yet, so I asked how could anyone judge the rigor and quality of the research.

But the concern for the "quality" of my academic experience, and the "reputation" of the department prompted the decision to cancel my proposed multi-disciplinary study - or I should say cancel my participation in the project. Money from the grant I had helped secure would not be made available to me, thus I would have to find another way to fund my graduate work. Of course, I was told, no one was trying to dissuade me from attending Montana State. It's just the university had a duty to maintain the highest academic standards.

I never attended Montana State. And maybe that's just as well. The research went on successfully without me - I understand with no further concerns about its multi-disciplinary nature or academic "rigor." And I must admit that I am glad it has. It was a good research proposal. Multi-disciplinary approaches are what are needed to solve our environmental problems.

And there was some justification for the faculty concern over my presence in the school. Given the reactionary nature of the legislature in Montana one could argue the faculty had a legitimate reason to worry about the political fallout that might occur if the Ralph Nader of the West enrolled at the school.

I can't say if my experiences at Montana State are widespread. Yet I think it would be naive to think that land-grant universities will be in the vanguard of innovation and change. They are still the brake trying to slow it down. As apologists for exploitive industries, land-grant institutions usually value the economic interests they serve above the public interest.

Writer George Wuerthner lives in Oregon. He is a board member of several environmental groups, as well as the president and sole member of the National Wolf Growers Association. He holds degrees in botany and wildlife biology from the University of Montana in Missoula, and in science communications from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He once worked for the BLM in Idaho as a rare plant botanist.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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