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The first Earth Day I remember growing up in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (a town named for a giant ancient fish once abundant throughout the Great Lakes, but decimated by overharvesting and pollution) was April 22, 1987. 

On that day, I and about 20 members of Mrs. Paulsen’s third-grade class planted a tree on the east lawn of Sunset Elementary School. Satellite imagery indicates the tree — a maple, I think — is still there, providing a bit of shade for the classroom where I first read “Charlotte’s Web.” 

I remember Mrs. Paulsen explaining that the Earth was fragile and needed to be protected if we were all going to keep living here. The tree, she explained, would help clean the air and provide oxygen for us to breathe. 

Pretty cool, I thought. 

In the early 1980s, Earth Day was a big deal. Its founder, Gaylord Nelson, was a senator from my home state, so the national environmental teach-in day was widely celebrated in Wisconsin public schools. 

There were plenty of reasons for the nation — and the world — to recognize the importance of environmental protection. 

Just a few months before I was born, President Jimmy Carter declared a national state of emergency at Niagra Falls, New York, after decades of toxic waste dumping in Love Canal poisoned hundreds of families and led to a shocking increase in miscarriages and birth defects among residents who lived near the site. 

A month after I was born, a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, led to the worst nuclear disaster on American soil. About a month after that, a fire and explosion at an infamous toxic waste dump in Elizabeth, New Jersey, sent a “thick black plume of smoke and ash over a 15-mile area,” triggering fears of widespread toxic contamination. 

Reacting to these calamities, Congress in 1980 passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act — better known as Superfund — which created a national trust fund to address hazardous waste sites requiring long-term cleanup. 

Today I live in Montana, that’s home to 16 Superfund sites requiring state and federal cleanup, most resulting from hard rock metal mining and related activities. 

On March 22, 1972, less than two years after the first Earth Day and nearly eight years before the creation of the Superfund law, 100 elected delegates adopted a new Montana Constitution. Those delegates were no doubt inspired by that first Earth Day — among the rights enumerated in the Constitution is “the right to a clean and healthful environment.” 

From groundwater and asbestos contamination in Libby, to abandoned mine waste and lead contamination in the Helena area, to groundwater contaminationin Billings, Montanans across the state continue to grapple with the legacy of unchecked industrial pollution. Oil spills on the Yellowstone River, smoke-filled skies during Montana’s ever-lengthening fire season, and nutrient pollution in rivers serve as stark reminders that we have a long way to go toward living up to our Constitution’s promise. 

—John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

Verbatim 💬

“2021 was an unprecedented year with more restrictions than any other year, with the largest duration of restrictions, and with the most restrictions put in place at [any] one time. … The Shields and the Yellowstone River are currently in very bad shape. We’re likely to see restrictions on the Shields going in as early as mid-May.”

FWP Fisheries Division Administrator Eileen Ryce, speaking about recent and expected river closures before the Fish and Wildlife Commission on Tuesday. Ryce added that the forecast is also looking rough for the Jefferson, Gallatin, Beaverhead, Big Hole and Ruby rivers, and both Hebgen and Canyon Ferry reservoirs are unlikely to fill. She said the agency is working with Hebgen Dam operator NorthWestern Energy to prioritize flows on the lower Madison River, one of the state’s most popular fisheries.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Glad You Answered 🙋🏻

Last week’s Lowdown included an unscientific poll seeking your input on the questions we should be asking U.S. House candidates through this year’s election season. I was frankly surprised by the volume of responses — more than 300 submissions by the time we closed the form Thursday.

I’m now up to my eyeballs sorting through all that input, both the quantitative issue ranking and your written feedback. One initial tidbit: The top-ranked issue for respondents who described themselves as “committed conservatives” was “election integrity and voting access.” For self-described moderate conservatives, in contrast, it was a tie between the “national debt,” “inflation” and “public education.” (Both committed and moderate liberals, in comparison, ranked “climate change” their most essential issue)

Stay tuned for more about how that input will drive our election coverage — and thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights.

Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

A 2021 law that made it harder for transgender Montanans to update the genderlisted on their birth certificate by requiring surgery and a court order as a condition for the change has been taken out of effect as a lawsuit challenging the law is hashed out in court.

That lawsuit, which was filed by a Billings woman and an anonymous Bozeman-born man last year, argues the new law violates existing requirements that government services to be administered without discrimination based on sex and that public documents listing the gender a transgender person was assigned at birth can expose them to harassment. The law’s supporters have called it necessary to maintain the integrity of the state’s statistical records and argued that a person’s sex has historically been public information.

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses issued a preliminary injunction Thursday, granting a request from the plaintiffs, who wanted the law deemed unenforceable while the case proceeds. A full ruling determining whether the law is constitutional will come at a later date.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of beds, including emergency and transitional housing, that local service providers aim to add across Montana to serve youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Funding for the additional services comes from a $3.4 million federal grant awarded to Montana in 2019. We reported on Montana’s efforts to curb youth homelessness this week.

Hot Potato 🥔

This week, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen released the results of a pollasking lawmakers whether they supported calling a May special session of the Montana Legislature to address election integrity. The poll was conducted over the past month at the request of 10 legislative Republicans, and the results did not go in their favor. Forty-four legislators — all Republicans — voted in support of the proposal and 60 lawmakers rejected it. Another 45 declined to vote. 

It’s the second time this year that critics of the 2020 election have pushed unsuccessfully for a special session to establish a special legislative committee charged with investigating alleged voting irregularities in Montana. The first came in February when a group of Republicans asked their colleagues in the House and Senate to sign a letter urging Gov. Greg Gianforte to call both chambers back to Helena. That request failed to garner majority support.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Quiz ✅

It’s time again to test your listening skills on Season 2 of our Shared State podcast.* Anyone who sends in correct answers to the three questions below will be entered to win MTFP swag: hats, mugs, sweaters and more. Let’s get started.

Episode 7: Colstrip’s next chapter

  1. Who was in charge of local services before Colstrip decided to incorporate as a town in 1998? 
  2. What kind of ride does Sen. Duane Ankney tend to drive around Colstrip when the weather’s nice? 
  3. Name the parts of Colstrip’s infrastructure that development advocate Jim Atchison describes as “worth their weight in gold.”

Submit your answers using this form by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday, April 25, and we’ll randomly select one winner from the correct entries to send some sweet MTFP gear. Special shout out to Jeanette from Dayton, OH, winner of last week’s quiz!

*Yes, we know, there are transcripts available to just look up the answers. We trust you to listen first and verify later. Have fun!

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — Snowpack and streamflows are very much front of mind for me these days, so I was interested in this Missoula Current story revealing more about the state’s decision to not “make a call” on irrigators holding junior water rights to support fisheries by keeping more water flowing in the Smith and Shields rivers last summer.

Alex Sakariassen — New issues are constantly popping up on the education beat, and the latest one I’ve come across centers on objections to socially oriented material in math curricula. As the Tampa Bay Times reports, Florida’s Department of Education this month rejected dozens of math textbooks it characterized as objectionable, leading to confusion and criticism from educators across the country.

Eric Dietrich — Up north, the Canadian government is wrestling with policies that could provide some relief from surging housing prices. One proposal: barring foreign buyers from acquiring Canadian real estate, the Globe and Mail reports.

Brad Tyer — Butte’s Montana Standard this week tapped into the state’s drought-obsessed zeitgeist with the launch of River in Peril, a gorgeous multimedia series exploring the myriad challenges facing the Big Hole River. If you care about the state’s waters, you should spend some time soaking in this special project. 

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.