Federal negligence turns ordinary Montanans hostile

  • Copper Lake in the Cabinet Mtn. Wilderness

    Judy Hutchins

NOXON, Mont. - Until last spring, few people had heard of Noxon, Mont., a sleepy town in the morning shadows of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. That changed after the Oklahoma City bombing and the media frenzy around citizen militias, including the Militia of Montana (MOM) based in Noxon. Now, most folks who have heard of Noxon view it as a rural bastion of anti-government anger.

They are wrong. The militia activists are a tiny group of relative newcomers to western Montana. (Locals sometimes refer to them derisively as the Militia of Minnesota Now in Montana, or MOM-NIM). Most residents don't deal much with big government and don't have any particular reason to oppose government. However, recent events in Noxon might do more than MOM-NIM ever could to sour citizens on big government.

Wisdom in small communities like Noxon holds that big is usually not better. Small-town folks have a healthy suspicion of distant bureaucracies and anonymous bean-counters. This was the recurring theme expressed by 250 people crowded into Noxon High School gymnasium last November. The target of Noxon's anger was not the government, but a huge copper and silver mining project being pushed by ASARCO, a multibillion-dollar, New York-based corporation.

State and federal officials convened the meeting to hear public testimony about the mine, proposed for public lands in the heart of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness just up the Clark Fork from Noxon. One after another, well-informed residents decried the proposed mine's undeniable damage to clean water and air, quality of life and diverse wildlife populations ranging from grizzly bears and mountain goats to the elusive harlequin duck. Former ASARCO miners blasted the company's hideous safety record. A horse logger gave an impassioned speech on behalf of the pure creek water he drinks every day. Each mine opponent received enthusiastic applause from an audience that looked to the government officials to protect the public interest.

And there's the rub. One observer commented that the only justification for big government is to act as a check against big business, which has always been willing to jeopardize worker safety, community health and environmental quality for short-term profit. Small, decentralized governments simply cannot control huge, multinational corporations like ASARCO, he said.

Yet the federal and state officials at the hearing seemed intent on promoting the mine even as they acknowledged that, yes, clean water and air would be degraded, wildlife impaired and the community's tranquil quality of life destroyed. Rather than protect the public interest against big business, big government was prepared, in effect, to write blank checks to ASARCO. One Forest Service official expressed impatience with the restless crowd. Blame the politicians in Washington, D.C., he said.

Indeed, it is the U.S. Congress that has declared that ASARCO has unlimited right to plunder the public domain for private profit. Three-quarters of the proposed 2,826-acre mine complex would be on public land, and all of the ore is located beneath public land. Under the 1872 Mining Law, ASARCO may remove $2 billion of silver and copper from the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness without any payment or royalties to the U.S. Treasury. Fueled by huge campaign contributions from mining interests, Congress has refused to reform this archaic law despite fierce public pressure to do so.

Western senators like Conrad Burns of Montana, Larry Craig of Idaho and Frank Murkowski of Alaska have spearheaded opposition to reforms that would allow local communities to say no to huge mining projects that threaten their entire way of life. These same lawmakers and industry lobbyists have created a web of budgetary incentives for county governments and federal bureaucrats to promote industrial development at the expense of local communities and environmental protection. And they have deliberately thrown monkeywrenches into the environmental laws that are on the books, making them ineffective and contradictory. Then they have the gall to declare environmental laws unworkable and seek to nullify them.

The 1872 Mining Law may have made sense 124 years ago when a young nation believed government should help the private sector tame the wild frontier and secure raw materials for industrial expansion. But today, conservation and recycling are more reasonable sources of copper and silver. And attitudes in Montana changed as out-of-state mining companies left a legacy of busted economies, toxic water and sick workers. Rural communities like Noxon no longer regard public lands and clean water as resources to be exploited, degraded and left behind in the search for more frontier. In Noxon, old-timers and newcomers stand shoulder-to-shoulder to protect a quality of life that is becoming increasingly rare in America.

Consider the irony: Most Noxon residents have little patience for the anti-government conspiracy theories of militia hotheads. But those same residents will be the first to say that when big government betrays the main reason for its existence and becomes a handmaiden for multinational corporations, it loses legitimacy. If the ASARCO mine goes forward, look for Noxon to become a hotbed of anti-government anger more potent than anything MOM-NIM will ever generate. n

Steve Thompson is the Northwest Montana Field Representative for the Montana Wilderness Association in Kalispell and a freelance writer.

High Country News Classifieds