Former MEIC Executive Director Jim Jensen on the Smith River. Credit: Dylan Brown

Back in the mid-1970s, outside a classroom at the University of Montana in Missoula, Ken Toole was talking to fellow student Jim Jensen.

He didn’t know him all that well, but when Jensen asked what he’d done over the weekend, Toole told him that his Datsun pickup had “sucked a valve.” As Toole recalled, “He kind of looks at me and says, ‘Well, bring it over this weekend and we’ll pull the engine and basically rebuild it.’”

Toole, who would go on to be a state legislator and member of the state Public Service Commission, thought Jensen was kidding, or at least exaggerating his abilities, but he also figured they could at least take a look and decide what to do.

“To make a long story short,” Toole said, “he knew exactly what he was doing.” They pulled the engine under a tree in Jensen’s yard, then took it into his basement, where he had an engine stand and all the necessary tools. The Datsun was soon running again.

That, Toole said, was pure Jensen.

“It’s easy to get the impression from Jensen that he’s a lot of bluster and blow,” Toole said, “but as you go deeper and talk to him … you figure out that he really understands the issues he’s been working on. I learned very quickly to listen to what he says.”

It was a lesson many other Montanans would learn over the decades. In Jensen’s 35 years as executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, the organization won dozens of important battles to protect the state’s land, air and water.

One of MEIC’s signal achievements was a 1999 Montana Supreme Court decision declaring that the right to “a clean and healthful environment,” enshrined in the revamped state Constitution of 1972, was a fundamental right. Before that ruling, the constitutional guarantee was merely aspirational.

If it hadn’t been for Jensen and MEIC, said Roger Sullivan, a Kalispell attorney and member of the MEIC board, “I believe that that constitutional right would still ring hollow. Jim had the vision and foresight and boldness to dare to try to enforce that right through a series of landmark lawsuits.”

On Monday, Oct. 19, Jensen, 70, plans to publicly announce that he’ll be retiring at the end of this year. He’s already told some close friends and associates.

In an interview with Montana Free Press about his legacy and MEIC’s accomplishments, Jensen referred to the 1999 high court ruling, and he mentioned the success of Initiative 137 back in 1998, which banned new cyanide heap-leach mines in Montana — a citizen’s initiative he said he conceived one morning in the shower.

But, he added, “One of the important things that doesn’t get the kind of attention I think it deserves is the work we’ve done on the right to know, the constitutional right to know.”

Anne Hedges, MEIC’s deputy director and lead lobbyist for 27 years, wanted to talk about that, too. When the organization sued the Legislature in 1997 to give the public access to bill drafts, or pieces of legislation not yet formally introduced, she said, a lot of legislators and state officials were furious with Jensen.

“But Jensen stood his ground,” Hedges said, and now no one has any doubts about the public’s right to review legislation during the drafting process. (Hedges, like many of Jensen’s associates, refers to him interchangeably as “Jim” and “Jensen.”) His commitment to open government is as strong as his commitment to a clean environment, Hedges said, calling it “a fundamental belief Jensen has had forever.”

Another fundamental belief, many of his colleagues attest, is that protecting the environment should not be a partisan issue.

George Ochenski, a former MEIC lobbyist, environmental activist and newspaper columnist who’s known Jensen for 40-some years, recalled that he and Jensen had some bitter fights with Democratic governors Ted Schwinden and Brian Schweitzer over environmental issues. Jensen was also highly critical at times of former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

“When Jensen and I were working together, it didn’t matter what party the opponents were in,” Ochenski said. “Our job was to be advocates for the environment.”

Jim Jensen as a new Montana Environmental Information Center hire in 1985. Credit: George Ochenski

John Fitzpatrick, a retired lobbyist who represented mining interests and the public utility industry, said Jensen was his opponent on countless issues over 35 years, but they never thought of each other as enemies.

Fitzpatrick said all the lobbyists used to “sit out in the hall and shoot the bull, and then we’d go in and fight hammer and tong in front of the committee and then come back out afterwards and wait for the next bill and get back to shootin’ the bull.”

Jensen, he said, “was probably the toughest adversary that I ever faced,” possessed of “an exceptionally well-organized mind and the ability to marshal facts in support of his particular argument. … When you were dealing with Jim Jensen on the other side of an issue, you had to bring your ‘A’ game.”

Art “Bunny” Hayes got an up-close look at the way Jensen gathered information. Hayes, who ranches near Birney and has been president of the Tongue River Water Users Association for almost 30 years, met Jensen in the early 2000s, when coal-bed methane wells were being sunk in the Tongue River Valley.

Hayes and some other irrigators, many of them in Helena for the first time to testify before a governor-appointed committee, were daunted by the chairman, “who was very pro-development” and wanted to limit the ranchers’ testimony to a total of 20 minutes, or about a minute each. But Jensen was there, too, Hayes said.

“Jim got up and said, ‘Look, you have got to let these people speak.’ And I was impressed,” Hayes said. “He didn’t hold back on the chairman, and he finally gave in and let us speak.”

It was the beginning of a friendship that continues to this day — “Actually, Jim’s coming next week to go hunting,” Hayes said — and Jensen has continued to assist the water users association over the years. But what really impressed Hayes was that Jensen would visit the Tongue River Valley a couple of times a year, just to keep up on the issues.

“He wants to see what’s going on on the ground,” Hayes said. “We’ll go look at Decker, we’ll go look at Spring Creek [coal mines], as close as we can; we’ll go look at the Upper Tongue River Valley. He wants the knowledge of the area. And he can transmit that knowledge to anybody in the Legislature. He wants the information to be correct. He’s always been that way.”

And maybe he just wanted an excuse to get out and experience Montana. He said he fell in love with the state the first time he saw it, back in the early 1970s. Growing up in Utah, one of his hobbies, with his brother, was restoring antique cars. One acquisition was a 1936 Yellowstone National Park tour bus. The brothers were restoring it and needed a hard-to-find water pump. Jensen located one in Glacier National Park and drove up to get it. He still sounds wistful describing his first view of the Mission Mountains from Evaro Hill, his first view of Flathead Lake, and then winding up Going-to-the-Sun Road.

“I’ll never forget that drive,” he said.

A few years before that trip to Montana, his college career in Salt Lake City had been interrupted by the death of his father. Jensen went home to Vernal, Utah, to run the family business, a laundry, dry cleaner and commercial linen supplier. He did that for six years before an unexpected offer to buy the business was accepted by his family.

At the time, he had thought running a business might be his life. He enjoyed the work, made decent money, and fished, skied and hunted in his free time. His parents were active in the local rod-and-gun club, he said, and “I grew up in the outdoors as much as possible.” 

He and his family were also Goldwater Republicans, Jensen said, and he even made an unsuccessful run as a Republican for a seat on the Uinta County Commission. When the business sold, he and his then-wife looked for a place where they could continue their college careers, somewhere in the mountains. The choice came down to Albuquerque or Missoula. They decided New Mexico was too hot, so Missoula it was, and Montana it’s been ever since.

He lived in Missoula, where he earned a B.A. in political science, and Helena until 1980, when he moved to Billings, where he worked for an organization that advocated for migrant farm workers, whom he described as “some of the most wonderful, hard-working people I’ve met in my life.” He also ran for the Legislature, as a Democrat, and served one term, during the 1983 session.

In 1985 he moved back to Helena and was working as a fishing guide on the Smith River, “living what I considered to be a near-perfect Montana life.” But enough people approached him about applying for a job as director of MEIC that he finally did. The organization, founded in 1973, was going through a rough patch, having shuffled through a slew of short-term and interim directors, and Jensen agreed to serve for one year to help it get back on its feet.

“It’s easy to get the impression from Jensen that he’s a lot of bluster and blow, but as you go deeper and talk to him … you figure out that he really understands the issues he’s been working on. I learned very quickly to listen to what he says.”

Former state legislator and Public Service Commissioner Ken Toole

Back then it was just Jensen, Ochenski as a lobbyist, and part-time bookkeeper Adam McLane, who was hired by Jensen and is still with MEIC. McLane’s longevity, and her own, “is a testament to Jensen,” said Deputy Director Hedges, who joined the organization in 1993. People have always enjoyed working for him, and know he supports them, Hedges said. “When we’re in heated political fights, he’s got our back, because he’s been there himself.” 

For example: In 1993, when Jensen was still actively lobbying in Helena for MEIC, he got into what he called a “heated discussion” with a Butte legislator, who subsequently accused Jensen of threatening him physically. Democratic Senate President Fred Van Valkenburg announced on the Senate floor that Jensen was banned from lobbying.

That made headlines across the state, Jensen said, but the aftermath went virtually unreported. MEIC sued the Legislature, arguing that Van Valkenburg had acted without authority, and under oath the Butte legislator recanted his accusation. A judge ultimately dismissed the suit, since Jensen’s temporary exclusion had already passed and because, the judge said, the particular circumstances of the incident were unlikely to reoccur.

Ochenski said he knew from the get-go that the accusation against Jensen was untrue, because “Jensen is not that kind of guy.” That’s not to say he wasn’t passionate and willing to stand up for what he felt was right, though.

Above all, Ochenski said, Jensen didn’t only play defense, as so many environmentalists tend to do. Playing defense just means you lose more slowly, Ochenski said, so Jensen always advocated going on the offense.

As a result, MEIC brought lawsuits and waged campaigns that blocked construction of a coal-fired power plant in Roundup, forced the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal ash, led to the adoption of exceptionally strong energy-efficient building code standards in Montana and brought about new mercury standards for power plants.

But the big win was I-137, banning cyanide heap-leach mines and specifically stopping a new mine near the Blackfoot River.

“He went on the offense and he won,” Ochenski said. “And I would say out of all the stuff we did, that was probably his legacy achievement. … When you put it all together, it’s an astounding record of accomplishments.”

Jensen, of course, has had critics as well. Jerry Driscoll, a former president of the Montana AFL-CIO, said Jensen and other environmentalists long ago abandoned blue-collar and union workers.

“You could talk to him,” he said of Jensen. “He had some principles, but when it came down to the final vote, he was always ‘my way or the highway.’” It used to be that most, if not all, legislators from places like Libby, Sidney and Miles City were Democrats, Driscoll said. Now, mostly because of job-killing environmental legislation, they are almost all Republicans, he said.

“The platform, the voice of the Democratic Party, hard hats don’t believe that bullshit,” Driscoll said.

“I’ll just let the record speak for itself,” Jensen said in response to Driscoll’s remarks, adding that when Driscoll was president of the AFL-CIO,  he was also a paid lobbyist for the Montana Power Company.

Ochenski was more blunt.

“Mining has been a disaster for Montana, and Jensen running that initiative [I-137] really saved future generations of Montanans millions of dollars, untold suffering and environmental damage in perpetuity,” Ochenski said. “That kind of puts guys like Jerry Driscoll in perspective.”

State Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, said he rarely encountered Jensen personally during his 14 years in the House and Senate. But MEIC under Jensen’s leadership, he said, has taken an economic toll on Montana.

“The MEIC has cost Montana more jobs than COVID,” he said. “I still don’t understand some of their motives, their philosophy.” It would have been one thing if the MEIC had pushed for clean-coal technology, Ankney said, “but it’s just about banning things instead of ‘how can we do things right?’”

Jim Jensen hunting grouse in southeastern Montana in 2003. Credit: Steve Gilbert

Alan Olson, a Republican who represented Roundup for 12 years in the state House and Senate and who is now the executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, said he and Jensen were on the opposite side of numerous issues over the years. Even so, he said, “I admire the man for sticking up for his convictions. I don’t hold a grudge on anybody.”

He only wishes MEIC hadn’t been so intransigent on so many issues.

“I just can’t see shutting down the natural resource industry in Montana because of problems that I didn’t necessarily recognize,” he said. “I don’t see how harvesting Montana’s natural resources is going to send us to Armageddon.”

“Jim had his beliefs and I had mine,” he added, “and I wish there was more opportunity to meet in the middle.”

Ochenski said he had no time for union leaders and politicians who hide behind jobs as an excuse to promote polluting industries.

“You’re against us because we won’t let you pollute,” he said. “Well, I’m sorry, but there’s a higher and better purpose in society than grabbing what you can today and saying, ‘damn the future.’”

Jensen said he is optimistic about the future of MEIC, which he said is financially sound and has a good, dedicated staff, and about the environmental movement in general, mostly because so many young people are committed to stopping and reversing climate change. 

That has been a big concern of his for decades.

“This was where Jensen was really visionary,” Hedges said. “He told us at a staff meeting in the mid-’90s, ‘We have got to reverse global warming.’” Hedges remembers the staff scoffing, thinking his concerns were overblown and that people in Montana could hardly take meaningful action in any case.

“It turned out he was dead right,” she said. “And we really did, within a few years, really ramp up our programs on coal and climate. Those are an enormous part of what we do today. He saw that coming before anyone else, including his own staff, myself included.”

As for what’s coming in his own life, Jensen doesn’t have many plans yet.

“The only thing we have on our calendar is, we’re going to go run the Grand Canyon next September,” he said. “I’ve run it three times before, but my sweetheart, Carla Potter, has not, and so we and a bunch of old boater friends are going to go do probably one last trip on the Grand. There’s still rivers to run.”

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Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana. He founded Last Best News, a digital newspaper based in Billings, in 2014, and recently published "Montana: The Lay of the Land—The Best of Last Best News."