Surprise! Conservation united Montana voters


Montana voters smashed the trash-can lid on the "blame the environmentalists" rhetoric so in vogue with right-wing Republicans earlier this year.

To no one’s surprise, Montana voters went solidly for President George Bush and overwhelmingly reelected their sole Republican congressman, Dennis Rehberg. But in that light, consider this:

Brian Schweitzer will become Montana’s first Democratic governor elected in 16 years, defeating the sophisticated, shrewd and affable Republican Bob Brown.

Two progressive candidates for the Supreme Court won handily.

Democrats took control of the state Senate and put their candidates in all but one statewide office.

Gallatin County, which voted 56 percent for Bush, also passed a $10 million bond to conserve working farms and ranches to benefit clean water and wildlife habitat. The measure passed 63 percent to 37 percent.

Rural Rosebud County, on the prairies of the Yellowstone River, voted for Bush 55 percent. Those same electors voted 80 percent to restrict coalbed methane development, in an attempt to protect soil and water from polluting runoff.

Even my staunchly conservative home, Flathead County, elected its first Democratic county commissioner in 14 years. Voters picked a candidate who wants common-sense land-use planning over a heroine of the Wise Use movement who promised more scattershot development and local rebellion against the Forest Service. This was in a county that gave Bush a resounding 68 percent of its vote.

But here’s the race that cheered me most: The mining industry tried mightily to turn back Montana’s ban on cyanide heap-leach gold mining, a practice that has tainted streams across the state. At the last count, it pumped $3 million into an ad campaign promising high-wage jobs, always a tempting argument in chronically under-employed Montana.

The mining Goliath outspent David conservationists by 10-to-1.Yet David won big: Montanans rejected the mining company’s plea, 58 percent to 42 percent.

See the trend here? Even conservative voters approved conservation. If Republicans are paying attention, they would be well advised to drop some of their tactics. In recent years, Montana Republicans have bashed environmentalists any time there was a microphone or TV camera nearby. Conservation-minded Republicans have been also marginalized within the party. Rather than assume responsibility for the economic conditions of the state it has run for more than a decade, the Republican elite simply blamed environmentalists for every economic woe. This din grew deafening during the Republican primary for the governor’s race.

Republican candidates outshouted each other, denouncing environmentalists while extolling the joys of extractive industry. Even the Republican candidate for governor, Bob Brown, who is an avid fly fisherman and once was a moderate conservationist, joined this shrill chorus in order to win his party’s endorsement.

This split was apparent during the general election between Schweitzer and Brown. Schweitzer, for example, stood against the measure to bring back cyanide-based gold mining; Brown toed the party line and stood alongside the mining companies.

Supreme Court races are supposed to be nonpartisan, but the split was clear here, too. Conservative challenger Cindy Younkin said incumbent Justice James Nelson was an "activist" judge, liberally exalting Montana’s right to a clean and healthy environment over the rights of industry and property-owners.

But come Election Day, Republicans hit the end of this rope like a rodeo calf.

Make no mistake. Montanans resent many environmental groups, particularly out-of-state organizations that seem oblivious to the opinions and welfare of local residents. But at the same time, Montanans love — no, revere — their clean water, their hunting and fishing opportunities, and their working farms and ranches. They want to pass those things on to future generations, well-used but unspoiled.

Montanans want to make a good living, but they know Montana’s clean water, wildlife habitat and working farms and ranches guarantee the good life. They realize what academics first noticed years ago: Traditional industries like mining and logging no longer drive the state’s ever-changing economy, and our scenery, clean water and world-class habitat are priceless economic assets.

Voters — in Montana and everywhere else — care a lot more for their families, their freedom, their communities, their future than they do about party loyalties. They pick and choose from one column to the other, one candidate to the other, one issue to the other. The wise politician pays attention.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He writes in Kalispell, Montana.

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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