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When my friend Sarah Vowell reached out last spring to ask if Montana Free Press would be interested in collaborating on a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Constitutional Convention, the timing couldn’t have been better. 

Our editorial team was already thinking about how to commemorate the creation of the historic document that has guided Montana’s politics and policies for the past half-century.

The previous year, we’d collaborated with Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio on a 10-episode podcast called Shared State that explored campaign-ballyhooed “Montana values” through the lens of the preamble to the Montana Constitution, which states: 

“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 this constitution.”

Shared State bridged history, politics, and the daily realities of everyday Montanans to examine the then-upcoming 2020 election, exploring what it means to be a “real Montanan,” voter access, public lands, and the tension between rugged individualism and community. 

For this new project, Sarah and MTFP’s reporting team interviewed most of the surviving delegates to the 1972 “ConCon,” as well as MTFP board chair and longtime statehouse reporter Chuck Johnson, who covered the convention as an intern for the Associated Press. We collected hours of video footage of these interviews, which will be archived at Montana State University. 

As I write this, Sarah is busy editing a sort of mini-documentary film that will be presented at an event on March 22 at MSU. Sarah and I will also moderate a conversation with former U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus, former Gov. Marc Racicot, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, ConCon delegate Mae Nan Ellingson and, of course, Chuck, who documented the whole thing firsthand. 

In today’s highly polarized, deeply divided political atmosphere, it’s almost impossible to imagine that just 50 years ago, 100 people from across this vast state — with widely differing political views, religions, experiences, and backgrounds — overcame their differences and together framed a new guiding document for Montana. In the end, all 100 delegates voted to send the newly drafted Constitution to voters. 

Can you imagine that happening today? Could our political leaders set aside their partisan loyalties, personal interests and pursuits of power to debate, compromise and agree on a framework to solve the state’s most pressing problems and preserve its most cherished values? 

Those are questions we’ll be asking a lot over the next 10 months as the 2022 midterm election approaches. We’ll hope you’ll join the conversation.

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of open positions advertised in the Lame Deer school district’s elementary and high schools as of late January — half of the two schools’ combined current staff of 52. 

“I’m principal, vice principal, secretary, and attendance clerk right now,” Lame Deer High School Principal Byron Woods told reporter Jill Van Alstyne for this week’s feature on the district’s response to acute COVID and staffing challenges

—Brad Tyer, Editor

Hot Potato 🥔 

Over the past year, different factions within Montana’s political machinery have adopted conflicting strategies for safeguarding the integrity of state elections. The disagreement stems from a fundamental divide over how secure Montana elections presently are and whether the results of the 2020 election signal an existential threat to the state’s voting processes.

Two separate events in Helena this week presented the clearest illustration to date of the divide. Inside the Capitol, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and numerous county election officials convened to formally test and certify the electronic machines slated for use in Montana’s 2022 elections. At the same time, four Republican lawmakers gathered in a downtown hotel ballroom for a full day of presentations and public comment perpetuating unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.

The former is a matter of routine for election officials every election year, one of many incremental steps taken to ensure that Montana ballots are accurately distributed, verified and counted. It’s part of an exhaustive process that takes county officials and their staffs months to complete, and is governed at every turn by federal laws, state laws and agency rules. In the face of a nationwide controversy instigated by Trump and many of his followers, several election officials in Montana encouraged the public last fall to observe various steps of the process firsthand. The message from their offices has been united: The checks and balances baked into the process at the local level are what make Montana’s elections secure.

That message is a non-starter for the occupants of the Helena hotel ballroom. Headed by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, the “ad hoc election integrity committee” spent Tuesday poring over all the ways in which the current system is vulnerable to attack by politically motivated abusers — and was attacked, they believe, to install a Democrat in the White House. Much of their narrative suggests coordinated fraud of a size and scope repeatedly refuted by political scientists across the country. The group’s more granular critiques — for example, that outdated voter rolls could open the door for fraudulent voting by individuals — focus on the very hypotheticals that the processes employed by county officials are designed to detect and prevent.

One of the earliest and most localized concerns driving the committee’s call for action is an allegation leveled in Missoula County by one of its members, Rep. Brad Tschida, last spring. Tschida claimed that he and a group of citizens had uncovered a potential 4,600-vote discrepancy in the county’s 2020 election results. The allegation prompted pushback from county commissioners and Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman, but has more recently attracted another party to the election integrity table: The Missoula County Republican Party. Early this week, party chair Vondene Kopetski publicly announced her plan to determine the veracity of Tschida’s claim, one way or another.

There’s no telling what Kopetski’s forthcoming entry into the debate might yield, but the news was less than welcomed by the ad hoc committee’s Republicans. Rather than greet Kopetski’s effort as an opportunity to confirm their suspicions, those Republicans questioned her motives, speculating that she’s out to discredit them.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Wildfire smoke permeates the air in this image of a forest fire burning in the Granite Pass Complex, which included three wildfires that burned nearly 6,000 acres along the Montana-Idaho border last summer. 

The health impacts of wildfire smoke were among the topics covered during a meeting of the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council at the Capitol on Tuesday. Katelyn O’Dell, a researcher who authored an August 2021 study in the journal GeoHealth focusing on mortality and morbidity attributable to smoke plumes, told council members that 1.2% of Montana deaths between 2006 and 2018 can be attributed to tiny particulate matter (PM) contained in wildfire smoke — “a much greater rate than all of the states in the contiguous U.S.”

This tiny (sub-2.5 micron) particulate matter is taken into the lungs and passes into the bloodstream. Exposure to 2.5 PM smoke is associated with negative respiratory and cardiovascular health impacts. Women exposed to 2.5 PM smoke during the second trimester of pregnancy experience higher rates of preterm birth.

Michael Gue, who spent 16 years as a wildland firefighter in the Northern Rockies and now conducts prescribed fire operations for the National Park Service in southern Florida, took the photo in late July. Gue told MTFP that a combination of climate change, fuel loading and urban sprawl have resulted in challenging wildfire seasons like 2021’s, and he advocates for prescribed fire — intentionally lit fires designed to consume accumulated vegetation — as a way to gain greater control over the conditions under which fires burn. 

“We know these ecosystems are naturally supposed to burn,” he said. “If we wait for a wildfire … it’s going to be a lot of smoke, it’s going to be more harmful, and it’s harder to control where it goes and who it impacts.”

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“The Omicron surge is exacerbating these increasing staffing shortages, as we currently have a record number of staff call offs due to COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine … The pool of available candidates to replace the staff members we lose is shrinking by the day. While our staffing shortages are a direct result of the pandemic, this isn’t a temporary challenge. This is very much our new reality in health care.” 

—St. Peter’s Health Chief People and Communications Officer Andrea Groom. The Helena hospital and Shodair Children’s Hospital announced Wednesday that their organizations have a combined 330 vacant positions.

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — Speaking of wildfire smoke (See Viewshed, above), this story out of Canada about lung function in officers responding to the 2016 Fort McMurray, Alberta, wildfires is both illuminating and depressing. The authors of a recent University of Alberta study found that “the small airways in [officers’] lungs underwent structural changes after they were deployed, potentially increasing the risk for respiratory diseases in the future.”

Mara Silvers — Anyone who’s tried to drive out of a snowy ditch knows how easy it is to keep spinning your wheels and just get more stuck. That’s the image brought to mind by this Wall Street Journal piece about how the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have fumbled recent COVID curveballs. It might be a good time for a truck with chains. 

Alex Sakariassen — It probably won’t come as much of a shock, but Montana’s not the only state in the West struggling with government employee turnover. WyoFile published an extensive report last week on just how dire the recruitment and retention woes are across Wyoming’s government, and what political leaders there propose to do about it.

Eric Dietrich — This piece from the New York Times includes the best explanation I’ve seen about what’s driving inflation in the national economy. In short: Stimulus-flush consumers meeting COVID-disrupted supply chains.

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.