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Shared State is hosted by The Write Question’s Sarah Aronson and is collaboratively reported and produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. It airs Thursdays at 6 p.m. on Yellowstone Public Radio, Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. on Montana Public Radio, and is available online here or wherever you get your podcasts beginning Sept. 8.
Nearly 50 years ago, a group of Montanans pushed for strong environmental protections and the right to “a clean and healthful environment.” What they created was groundbreaking. Only about a half-dozen other states recognize environmental rights in their constitutions, and Montana is the only state that calls that right “inalienable.”
In this episode, Yellowstone Public Radio reporter Rachel Cramer dives into the events at the 1972 constitutional convention and how one aspect of our shared environment, public lands, is playing out in Montana’s U.S. Senate race. When politicians talk about protecting our outdoor heritage in Montana, what exactly are they protecting, and whose interests are they serving?
Sarah Aronson Earlier this summer, Yellowstone Public Radio reporter Rachel Cramer met Chuck Johnson at his home in Helena. He’s been reporting on Montana elections and legislative sessions for nearly 50 years. He’s pretty much a legend in the world of Montana journalism. Full disclosure: He’s also on the board at Montana Free Press.
Chuck’s home office is full of history books and old wooden cabinets that used to hold letter press typeface. He opened one of the drawers to reveal dozens of political buttons.
[Chuck Johnson]: So these are my oldest … here’s my Lincoln one. There’s William Clark.
Aronson This collection is one way to keep track of our political history. But there’s one event that stands out in his mind all on its own. The state’s 1972 Constitutional Convention. Chuck was just 23 when he covered it for the Associated Press.
Rachel Cramer When you look back at several decades of reporting on state politics and all of these really important issues, where does reporting on the constitutional convention fall?
Chuck Johnson It was the high point.
From my standpoint, I’d say it was probably the most — not probably, it was the most interesting thing I covered.
Aronson He says that’s because a lot of the delegates who’d been elected to rewrite the state’s outdated constitution had pretty lofty goals, especially around one issue: protecting the environment. The result was what scholars have called one of the most environmentally progressive constitutions in the country. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
Cramer How do you remember it being discussed?
Johnson It was one of the most controversial topics, in part because of the times.
Aronson Those times meant high drama as the economy and the environment went head to head. Chuck watched it all play out on the convention floor.
I’m Sarah Aaronson and this is Shared State, a podcast about what’s driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.
Talking about Montana’s environment, our public lands and waterways, is one of the fastest ways for politicians to gain credibility here. After all, about a third of the land in this state belongs to you and me. Big, sprawling swaths of natural beauty are a defining feature of Montana. So much so, the preamble to the Constitution goes on at length about the state’s landscape. The quiet beauty of our state. The grandeur of our mountains. The vastness of our rolling plains.
I’ve only lived in Montana for 15 years, and I’m still humbled by its mosaic beauty. The White Cliffs of the upper Missouri River breaks and how they cut through the north central plains. The arteries of trout-thick rivers and streams, the hidden cedar groves in summer. I know any huckleberry patch I stumble into might actually belong to a grizzly. And every fall I look forward to the tamarack sliding the mountainsides with their golden needles, and the way those needles grow back soft and green each spring. This land and its seasons are why I moved to Montana and why I continue to stay. So we’re devoting two episodes to understanding the political conflicts around our land, water and air. This time, the quiet beauty of our state.
When politicians talk about protecting our outdoor heritage in Montana, what exactly are they protecting and whose interests are they serving?
[voice montage]: 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; and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity, and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish … do ordain and establish this constitution.
Rachel Cramer has our story.
Cramer To understand how the environment came to play such a big role in Montana’s constitution, we’ve got to go back to the 70s.
Again, Chuck Johnson.
Johnson So it was the right time and the right place for the people that wanted to reform the document and make a modern document for Montanan.
Cramer Around the time of the constitutional convention, Chuck says the environmental movement was spreading across the U.S. Congress, wrote major legislation to address toxic smog, rivers catching fire and disappearing wildlife.
Johnson You had the passage of the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts nationally that Nixon, President Nixon signed into law. You had the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency during that period.
Cramer And here in Montana, the mining industry, which had driven the state’s economy and politics for nearly a century, was starting to lose its grip. In Butte, locals were dealing with the toxic consequences of underground mining.
Johnson You had the legacy of mining and all the environmental damage it caused. In addition to all the economic benefit it caused.
Cramer In Missoula, the timber industry dominated the landscape. Huge wood waste burners spewed noxious smoke into the air.
[news clip]: Missoula, Montana. Missoula have only two sources of industrial pollution, a saw mill and the paper plant. but the town lies in a valley and is subject to frequent temperature inversions. As a result waste [?] remain at breathing level.
Cramer Over on the eastern side of the state …
[Louise Cross]: Strip mining was on the horizon.
Cramer That’s Louise Cross, a delegate from Glendive, speaking in a 2002 MontanaPBS documentary.
[Cross]: And I had read about the devastation in Kentucky and the Appalachian region and what poverty those people had. And the thought struck me that Montana, eastern Montana, might end up in the same way. And I was very concerned about it.
Cramer She was chair of the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee at the convention. It was in charge of recommending language about environmental protections in the new Constitution. Cross was often described as soft spoken, but determined she pushed for a strong conservation policies. But the majority of people on her committee dismissed them.
Bob Campbell OK, yes, I’m back now.
That’s Bob Campbell, another delegate who fought for the environment at the convention. Even though more Montanans were growing concerned over pollution and the extraction industries, Bob says putting in language to protect and improve the environment was really controversial.
Campbell They said it would it would hurt the business interests and they couldn’t regulate anything that would cause a great economic collapse.
Cramer To Bob, delegates had a choice to allow the stranglehold of industry to continue or to reflect the environmental awakening that was taking hold of the country.
And so came time for the floor debate over the section of the constitution dedicated to environmental protections.
Campbell For the argument that the rafters were full, it was packed. It was set for one o’clock. Everyone was there. It was just packed.
Cramer By this point, Bob said the intro from the Natural Resources Committee was really vague. It just said that the state and everybody in Montana must maintain and enhance the environment. At the time, Bob was thinking Montana’s going to have an environment no matter what. So it’s important to say what kind of environment we want to have. During the floor debate, a handful of delegates stood up to propose ways of making that language stronger. And time after time, they were shut down. Many delegates thought those proposals were either too hard to enforce or too strict and would wind up hurting the state and business. As the afternoon ticked by, Bob made an attempt of his own. He said the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment for present and future generations. Again, another nay vote, but someone at the convention sent him a note saying try again. So he did.
Campbell People started to leave about five, 5:15 and I just stood up and I said, to President Leo Graybill, that I wanted to speak. And so he said, okay.
Cramer The convention president hit his gavel three times to get everyone’s attention.
Campbell When he whamed that gavel, boy, it was stony silence. And I was standing up there looking at all these people.
Cramer Bob says they had already argued for hours. He wasn’t sure what would change their minds. So he just went for it.
Campbell You all say you want a clean environment, but you don’t want to put it in writing.
Cramer He said if the Constitution doesn’t clarify the type of environment Montana will have …
Campbell Some little kids are going to come up and say, ‘what did you do for the future and my environmental protection?’ And you’re going to say, well, we decided that you would have an environment, but we wouldn’t tell you what kind you’d have. That little kid would shake his head and say ‘you spent half a million dollars for a constitutional convention and you gave the future children of Montana a promise that they’d have an environment, but you wouldn’t tell them whether it was good or bad.
Cramer Nearly 30 people changed their minds from that last vote. Bob’s wording won.
Later on at the convention, ‘a clean and healthful environment’ was also added to the Montana Bill of Rights. It was groundbreaking. Today, only about a half dozen other states recognize environmental rights. And Montana is the only state that calls that right in alienable.
The 1972 convention was part of a transition in the relationship between Montana’s people and the natural world. But these days you don’t often hear politicians or outdoor enthusiasts quoting the state constitution. The topic that gets more airtime is just one part of our shared environment.
[Kathlee Williams ad]: And for over three decades, I’ve worked to forge solutions to protect our natural resources and public lands.
[campaign ad montage]: And he opened up public lands … when I’m elected, I’m going to do everything in my power to protect our public land … And ensure that public lands stay in public hands … Gianforte will enforce the …
Once place where this rhetoric comes up a lot is the race for the U.S. Senate …
[Steve Daines ad]: The founders vision for America was a frontier nation, a wild nation. What made America …
… between incumbent Republican Senator Steve Daines …
[Steve Daines ad]: Montanans were brought up with a love of the outdoors and a sense responsibility to conserve as well as maintain them.
… and his challenger, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock
[Steve Bullock at a rally]: Our public lands are our heritage. Our public lands are our birthright. Our public lands are …
Cramer Those ‘clean and healthful environment’ parts of our Constitution were all about the state, but federal lands and environmental policies affect a lot of public acres in Montana. And whoever we elect to that Senate seat could influence what happens to our forests and grasslands in Montana and across the U.S.
Both Daines and Bullock have long histories of voting on and proposing environmental policies. Digging into their full records would take more time than we have in this episode. But there’s one topic that both of them have talked a lot about while they’ve been in office.
[news clip montage]: On Wednesday, 17 new fires burned more than 100,000 acres in Montana … And as fires rage and smoke permeates Montana, some evacuees in the Seeley Lake area are allowed to return home, but that doesn’t mean life is going back to normal. This is something I’ve never seen before. I’ve lived in Bozeman since 1967 and I’ve never seen the Bridgers on fire like this.
Cramer Fire is a natural part of the landscape in the West. But wildfire seasons are growing longer and more intense due to climate change, a century of fire suppression and huge chunks of forest getting killed off by bark beetles. With fires there are a lot of connections you can make to the idea of a clean and healthful environment. The smoke that chokes our communities. The flames that can both destroy habitat for some species and improve it for others, and the layers of complexity from a changing climate that lawmakers back in the 70s would probably have never seen coming. Whoever wins the Senate race could play a pivotal role in the future of our national forests and the public’s right to have a seat at the table.
Steve Daines’ office didn’t respond to my interview requests, but he’s already said quite a bit about this issue over the last few years. So let’s rewind to 2017, a record breaking fire season.
[Steve Daines]: Our crisis in Montana isn’t water. It’s not too much water. It’s not hurricanes. It’s fire.
Cramer Before the fires were out. Daines testified in the Senate.
[Steve Daines]: It is smoke filling the air and filling our lungs. It’s communities being evacuated. Montanans standing on the side of the road, looking at the fires moving toward their homes.
That year, two firefighters died. More than 1,600 fires burned over a million acres in Montana.
[Steve Daines]: That’s nearly the size of the entire state of Delaware.
Cramer The largest fire mostly burned grasslands in eastern Montana, but Daines focused on forests
[Steve Daines] Since 1990 our state, Montana, has lost over 40 percent of its forestry workforce and lost two thirds of its mills.
Cramer To Daines there was a solution to these problems. More logging. Forests with less material to burn meant lower wildfire danger to communities. The problem, he said, are people who file lawsuits and get this work held up in court for years. When it comes to those groups, Daines uses one blanket term.
[Steve Daines]: I can tell you we’re done listening to radical environmentalists when they tell us otherwise. Too many forest management projects have been held up in frivolous litigation at the expense of the people of Montana.
Cramer Maybe this isn’t surprising. But a lot of people who filed these lawsuits don’t see themselves as radical at all. We’ll hear more from them later on.
In the three years since, Daines’ message hasn’t really changed. He still talks about stopping what he calls frivolous lawsuits.
[Steve Daines]: Either we’re gonna manage our forests, or our forests are gonna manage us.
Cramer That’s Daines speaking in Kalispell last month. He’s talking about a bill he introduced with a Democratic senator from California that could realize some of his promises from 2017. It’s called the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020.
There’s a lot in this bill, but here’s something that’s been getting a fair amount of attention. It would speed up the environmental review process for a few major fuels production projects in the West. And that’s a big deal. Environmental review is how agencies decide if projects meet state and federal land, water and air standards. In this case, each of those projects could impact a chunk of land roughly the size of Salt Lake City, and have added protections from lawsuits.
[Steve Daines]: This is about workers. It’s about wildfires. It’s about wildlife. It’s about watersheds. It’s about protecting our jobs, our way of life here in Montana.
Cramer The bill is still working its way through Congress. So far, it’s gotten mixed reviews from stakeholders. Some groups aligned with the timber industry say the bill would support jobs and reduce the risk of intense wildfires.
Remember that phrase that made it into our Constitution, a ‘clean and healthful environment’? Some people say that language still applies here because we should be working toward air that’s free of smoke and healthier forests. But some environmental groups see something different. They say fire is a natural part of a healthy forest and that science shows we can’t log our way out of wildfires. Specific actions around homes and communities are the best way to keep people safe. They say the bill looks to them like a handout to the forest industry that fast tracks logging projects without normal input or oversight.
Wildfire doesn’t stop on federal land. The state plays a huge role in how we deal with forests and fire safety, too. So Daines’ opponent, Steve Bullock, has had a lot of experience with forestry at the state level during his eight years as governor.
[Steve Bullock]: … And it’s really fitting that we’re having this conversation here in Missoula. It’s a town that has deep roots in the timber industry and forest management.
Cramer This is from a meeting of Western governors back in 2016.
[Steve Bullock]: Of course, today, forest management is still about the forest products industry and state and federal government. But it’s also about the importance of our forests and public lands for tourism, recreation and indeed our quality of life. That includes providing good wildlife habitat as we head into hunting season. It includes intact watersheds for drinking water and fisheries, and places to take your family to be alone together in the outdoors. And since we’ve just concluded our fire season — knock on wood — it’s also about forest health, managing fire risk near communities.
Cramer Bullock has repeatedly talked about the need to get more logs on trucks to make forests safer. To find out more about how he might manage federal forests as senator, I called him up. He said he’s been able to get a lot of timber out of forests in Montana through some initiatives he put in place as governor, and that that has also been good for the economy.
Steve Bullock I do see the timber industry as both a critical part of jobs in Montana, but also a critical partner in keeping our forests healthy.
Cramer Bullock also signed an agreement called the Good Neighbor Authority in 2016. It’s complicated. But in a nutshell, it allows state agencies to help the federal government cut down trees and get rid of other fuel on national forests by blurring those boundaries between federal and state land. Good neighbor is meant to speed up projects and pool resources.
I asked the governor if he thinks it’s worth it to pull money from the state purse to work on federal land.
Bullock I’d so much rather keep healthy, vibrant forests than looking at, you know, what we had in 2017, is but one example of $70 million dollars of fire season.
Cramer I also wanted to know how Bullock sees the legal side of this problem about the court cases that say some forest projects are violating bedrock environmental laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act. Over the last several years, there have been times when Bullock sided with the Forest Service when environmental groups took the agency to court. He said it’s complicated.
Bullock But I think that to just turn around and say, well, the whole problem is NEPA or the ESA. is really sort of selling the challenge short.
Cramer Bullock said even when it’s hard, he believes that conservationists and scientists, people from government and industry can come together to figure out solutions. Both he and Daines talk about this win win win situation, where completing more projects on public lands supports healthy forests, timber jobs and communities at risk of wildfire.
But there’s a voice missing from this conversation: the people who file these lawsuits. Many of them say they feel left out of this process as a whole.
Arlene Montgomery is the program director of Friends of the Wild Swan. For over 30 years they’ve used the court system to challenge state and federal projects they think could hurt fish and wildlife. I brought up the language Steve Daines uses to describe people who litigate.
[Steve Daines]: I can tell you were done listening to radical environmentalists ..
Cramer Arlene said it’s just name calling. And Daines isn’t the first politician to use this tactic to marginalize them.
Arlene Montgomery There’s sort of this misperception that, oh, you know, we have these environmentalists and they just sue on every project. But you have to show a violation of the law in order to even bring a lawsuit.
Cramer In fact, one study in 2014 found that the plaintiffs, groups like Arlene’s, won more than half of the lawsuits they filed against the government.
Montgomery You know, it’s it’s not that we just go out there and, oh, my God, we don’t participate, and we come in … we’re in the shadows and we come out and go, oh, here, we’re going to sue on this. It’s like, we are participating every inch of the way, trying to make these decisions better.
Cramer She said using the legal system is a backstop when other forms of public input don’t work; which she said has been getting harder over the last several decades.
Montgomery We’ve seen this kind of erosion of public participation, but also allowing states to take over the management of federal lands.
Cramer Arlene, I’m curious as well about your thoughts with the two candidates for the Senate race, Senator Daines and Governor Bullock; What would you see as the similarities and the differences that they have in terms of forest management and upholding environmental laws and protections?
Montgomery Yes, when it comes to forest management, I see very little difference between Bullock and Daines.
Cramer Can you explain a little bit more about those similarities?
Arlene Montgomery Well, Senator Daines wants to increase logging on federal lands as sort of this panacea to somehow, I guess, get rid of fire. I’m not quite sure. I think it’s to prop up the timber industry as well. And, you know, Governor Bullock has used the farm bill provisions to increase logging on federal lands that limits public participation.
Cramer This idea of public participation is really important to her. And she said she can feel an erosion of that right coming from all sides, especially when it comes to forest policy. At the end of the interview, Earlene said discussions around public lands have really shifted to focus more on people instead of wildlife. Organizations like hers try to make sure bull trout, grizzlies, lynx and wolverines don’t get left out.
Montgomery How many mountain bike trails can we have? How many snowmobile play areas? And I think we need to perhaps change our perception of public lands as, these provide habitat for imperiled wildlife species that have nowhere else to go. I mean, this is their home. And so I think instead of looking at how many pieces of the pie can we cut for humans to use our public lands and look at it like, how much do we save so that wildlife have a place to live?
Cramer Around five years ago, researchers at the University of Montana interviewed people like Arlene. They wanted to better understand why some environmental groups file lawsuits over forest projects in the Northern Rockies.
Peter Metcalf It was a really fun project, and I think it really holds sway for today. We still see very much the conversation is timely.
Cramer That’s Peter Metcalf, one of the authors of that paper. He looked at the lawsuits and timber projects themselves, and all kinds of other written materials that went with them. But he really dug into those interviews. The transcriptions took up hundreds of pages looking at it all. He noticed …
Metcalf You know, there was a lot of, kind of, commonalities.
Cramer Peter said many of the folks he talked to didn’t have a problem with forest thinning projects around homes and communities. It was mostly the logging farther out in the back country that had them losing sleep.
Another commonality among the interviewees was the specific worry that industry pushed aside other voices, scientists and conservationists. Many of these people also saw themselves as giving voice to the voiceless; to fish, wildlife and ecosystems. The heart of their concerns was really rooted in democracy and the need for public participation in the process. They saw a pattern of policy changes at the national level that stripped away their ability to get their voices heard.
Metcalf It really comes back down to accountability, right? And ensuring that our public servants in these bureaucracies are serving the public interests and the public trust and the laws that have been designed to guide their agencies, rather than any particular special interests or interests of the bureaucracy at large.
Cramer Peter talked about a few laws that form the backbone of how we manage our forests. The National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act. But another one that we tend to hear a little less about also kept coming up. It’s a bit of a mouthful: The Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960. It says the forest is supposed to be managed for timber, but also for recreation, range, water and fish and wildlife. It doesn’t say how to balance all that.
Metcalf We’ve asked this agency to manage four things that at times can be congruent and at times are competing. So how do we bring out and manage for a variety of the other values which the forest is supposed to manage for.
Cramer And since that paper came out, he said …
Metcalf The trend we identified earlier, talked about five years ago, has just continued to accelerate as as an effort to try to minimize the citizens access to the courts as a way to enforce the law.
Cramer Peter said this is one trend you can see in both Bullock and Daines’ records. But he said the reality is much more nuanced than litigation versus wildfire jobs versus the environment. Fire is part of life in the West. The challenge is figuring out how much fire we’re willing to put up with and where it should be. There are other factors at play, too climate change, a surge in outdoor recreation and a population boom in areas known for their natural beauty.
So what it comes down to for Peter is figuring out what we all want from our national forests. And in a way that’s not so different from the debate Bob Campbell and the other delegates were having back in 1972 at the convention. After all, the language that made it into the Constitution said all of us, including you and me, have a duty to protect Montana’s environment and to make it better. It’s about finding out together what does the future of our public lands look like.
The Grandeur of Our Mountains and the Vastness of Our Rolling Plains — what “public lands access” looks like on the ground , and in the governor’s race
Shared State is made by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. We’re produced by Mara Silvers and edited by Nick Mott. Editorial assistance comes from Brad Tyer, Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney and John Adams.