Consider the accolades heaped upon Montana by writers who’ve passed through for a spell or made their home here. In 1962, John Steinbeck famously wrote that he had “admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection” for other states, but found that with Montana “it is love.” Two and a half decades later, William Kittredge of Missoula coined the moniker “The Last Best Place.”
Regardless of their zip code, political leaning or socioeconomic status, Montanans from all corners of the state tend to love its open character, snowmelt-fed rivers and largely intact wildlife populations. University of Montana Environmental Studies Director Robin Saha says that this appreciation can cut through other divides, even in an increasingly partisan political climate.
Indeed, 85% of Montanans polled last year said that clean air, clean water, open spaces and public land are “very important” or “somewhat important” when they consider an elected official’s suitability for office. In February, a “State of the Rockies” poll Colorado College released found that 73% of Montanans surveyed described themselves as conservationists.
Jock Conyngham, who has tracked political discourse over a four-decade tenure working on environmental issues in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, argues that those values may be widely held, but the work of protecting them is a “devils-in-the-details” kind of endeavor requiring discipline and stamina. It’s the kind of work that Montana Environmental Information Center, a nonprofit that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, excels at, Conyngam said.
“It’s tough, contentious and often unpleasant work,” he said, “and I’m really glad there are groups like MEIC and its partners to do it.”
Conyngham draws a connection between the widespread, bipartisan support for what he calls “bedrock environmental laws” — many of which, like MEIC, have recently come up on semi-centennial anniversaries — and the water and landscapes they’ve served. He said such institutions didn’t “occur spontaneously,” having arisen out of “expensive, damaging excesses” that were front-of-mind for many Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I think a lot of our current cast of legislative characters, some of my friends on the opposite side of the conservation aisle, have forgotten just how bad things were, but I grew up in that time and I remember it clearly,” Conyngham said. “When I see attempts to weaken the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, I take that very personally as a person, a grandparent and an outdoorsman. I know what’s at stake and how much good those laws did.”
Legal scholars, environmental activists and practicing attorneys say a handful of forward-looking provisions in the Montana Constitution drafted by delegates 50 years ago have secured some of the strongest environmental protections and most progressive stream access laws in the country. Cases decided by the Montana Supreme Court in 1984, 1999, 2011 and 2014 have been particularly pivotal in fleshing out what Montanans’ right to a “clean and healthful environment” means in practice.
Reflecting upon MEIC’s early years in a 2020 Public Land and Resources Law Review, MEIC co-founder and Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame member Robin Tawney Nichols said the early 1970s brought the “twin threats of energy development and subdivision activity” to Montana. She and her husband Phil Tawney teamed up with Don Aldrich, who’d been lobbying on behalf of Montana Wildlife Federation after retiring from Montana Power Company, to press the 1973 Montana Legislature on environmental issues and keep conservationists around the state apprised of legislative happenings.
By December, Environmental Information Center (as it was known until “Montana” was added in 1980 to circumvent a copyright infringement issue) had launched. Within a year, the organization adopted a “Keep Montana Montana” slogan and its membership grew from 25 members to 800.
In the ensuing years, MEIC has worked on issues both expected and unexpected. In addition to weighing in on — and filing lawsuits over — eastern Montana coal mine expansions, a cyanide heap leach gold mine proposed in the Blackfoot Valley, and numerous air quality permits and water quality regulations, the organization has helped flesh out open government rights enshrined in the 1972 Constitution. Members of the public can review drafts of bills in the Legislature as a result of a lawsuit MEIC filed in 1997, for example; more recently, it lobbied on behalf of a bill that establishes deadlines for state agencies to comply with public record requests.
To better understand the organization’s past, present and future, Montana Free Press interviewed MEIC co-director Anne Hedges, who has been following, and working to shape, environmental policy since she joined MEIC in 1993. Hedges comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Montana Free Press: MEIC celebrated its 50th birthday at an event in Victor last month. What are some of the major milestones or highlights from the past five decades that stand out to you?
Hedges: There are a lot. MEIC was created to change land-use regulation to try to protect open space and wildlife habitat from subdivision. It took 20 years to do that — not that it’s a completed task — but we helped change the subdivision and platting act so that subdividing a property into parcels of less than 160 acres requires local review. That was one of the biggest things the organization did from a land-use perspective. Janet Ellis was one of the leads on that when it passed in the early 90s.
George Ochenski, when he worked for MEIC, helped pass the state Superfund law. Then there was the cyanide heap-leach mining ban, a ballot initiative that came out of our organization and that we helped pass in 1998. There was also the 1999 Montana Supreme Court decision to protect the Blackfoot River from that cyanide heap leach mine, which resulted in the first judicial interpretation of the right to a “clean and healthful environment.”
Over the years, we have worked to stop so many coal-fired power plants that would have put hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere over their lifetimes. We have ongoing work to encourage the state’s transition, in a humane way, to cleaner energy sources. We passed the renewable energy standard back in 2005. Patrick Judge, in our office, was the lead on that. We’re disappointed in the repeal, but it certainly did force utilities to think about how to increase the clean energy in their portfolio. And in 1999, former MEIC lobbyist Jeff Barber worked to pass net metering. Had we not done that, we might not have net metering today.
MTFP: You’ve worked for MEIC for 30 years, making you the organization’s longest-serving active employee. How has it changed over your tenure?
Hedges: The mission, to protect our right to a clean and healthful environment, has always been the same. It started out as an all-volunteer operation formed to give Montana an environmental lobbying arm. The organization blew through a number of executive directors in the 1980s and was in financial peril. It almost went out of existence.
Fortunately, Jim Jensen, who had a business background, joined the organization in 1985. Jensen hired Adam McLane, a certified professional accountant. Adam helped MEIC, and many other nonprofits, navigate the nonprofit world.
When I was hired in 1993, the organization had two full-time employees and one part-time employee. Now there are nine of us. Over time, we’ve learned a lot about working effectively with other organizations across the state to accomplish shared goals. We have strong connections to organizations like Earthjustice, Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Environmental Law Center and Montana Conservation Voters, so it feels like we’re bigger than nine individuals. We feel like we are a community moving in the same direction in a pretty coordinated fashion.
During 35 years as executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, Jim Jensen fought — and won — some of the state’s most contentious battles. Now he’s retiring.
MTFP: That’s a good segway into something that came up in conversations I’ve had with other people in the environmental and conservation community. Montana Conservation Voters Board Chair Jock Conyngham, for example, said he wonders why MEIC isn’t larger given Montanans’ strong feelings about clean air, clean water and thriving wildlife. What would you say to that?
Hedges: Because I don’t want to manage that many staff. [Laughs]
It’s a matter of funding. There are only one million people in Montana, and there are a lot of nonprofit organizations in this state, all of which have different niches. I think it’s a stronger, better, more diverse community of activists this way, and I appreciate the perspective these different organizations bring to our shared campaigns.
MTFP: Do you think the kind of threats facing Montana’s air and water have changed?
Hedges: I do. We recognized and started talking about the climate crisis in the 90s, but now it has become evident that it is the single most important threat we face. It impacts everything else we work on: water resources, air quality, health. That nexus with all of these other issues has become not only more apparent, but more immediate.
We also face a lot of the same issues, particularly surrounding agencies that feel they’re serving the industries they’re regulating. They’re the ones agency staff communicate with on a regular basis, and the Legislature will come down very hard on agencies for making a decision a regulated industry takes issue with. State agencies are full of very good people, but they’re often afraid to make decisions that will stop or mitigate harms furthered by regulated industries.
MTFP: You’ve described how other rights enshrined in the Montana Constitution implement environmental protections. Can you elaborate on the interplay between the right to a “clean and healthful environment” and open government provisions written into the 1972 Constitution?
Hedges: The right to a clean and healthful environment is important, but the right to know and the right to participate really are equally important. Over the years, state agencies, having been sued, have been led to understand that they have an obligation to let the public know what they’re doing and comment on their decisions.
Every permit before the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is subject to those provisions. Without them, we wouldn’t know what government is doing and what various industries are proposing. We also wouldn’t have a say in whether a permit should be issued or conditioned upon mitigation measures.
I believe that kind of sunshine makes government more responsive and allows the public to understand and engage in a way it wouldn’t otherwise be able to. I talk to other people in states that don’t have those rights and it always surprises me when they can’t access information that government holds. It stymies their work.
That day-in-and-day-out right also plays into all kinds of things outside of environmental issues. It impacts voting, water rights, and public health and human resource issues. It is so important to everything government does. Without those rights, we would be a very different state.
MTFP: MEIC sends lobbyists to the state Legislature, weighs in on rules proposed by executive branch agencies and files lawsuits in both state and federal court. What are the positives and negatives to engaging across all three branches of government?
Hedges: You have to be nimble and deal with the government sitting in front of you at that time. If you have an executive branch that doesn’t give a hoot about climate change or doesn’t believe in it, then you have a different set of problems compared to an executive branch that at least acknowledges the climate crisis and is thinking about ways to resolve it.
MEIC doesn’t engage in electoral politics, so we have to work on both sides of the aisle to try to pass good legislation and prevent bad legislation. We have to work with the executive branch and agency personnel within it. And when all else fails, it is critical that we have access to the courts in order to enforce our rights when the executive branch or legislative branch thumbs its nose at our constitutional rights or the laws that they are required to follow.
We believe in using each branch of government, but how we use them depends on the decisions being made by those in power.
MTFP: Some political observers have suggested that MEIC has been on its back foot at the Capitol during recent sessions — that it’s rarely on the offensive in terms of introducing legislation to expand environmental protections. How would you respond to that critique?
Hedges: We’re an army of just a few lobbyists, and we are up against really powerful corporate interests and a whole lot of industry lobbyists. Every session we try to be proactive, and occasionally, we are successful. In recent sessions, for example, we’ve helped pass bills that give government a set of deadlines to comply with public information requests and help utilities like NorthWestern Energy move away from fossil fuels and invest in clean energy.
Because there are so few of us and the culture wars are at an all-time high, we also have to protect what we have. I’ve learned that the first half of the session is for introducing good ideas and the second half is for trying to prevent bad ideas from becoming law. Sometimes we’re successful with the good ideas, and often we’re successful at defeating the bad ideas.
MTFP: Is there anything that’s made it easier or harder to work on environmental issues now than when you started out?
Hedges: I think term limits and culture wars have, in many ways, made MEIC’s job much more difficult. I’m not in favor of or opposed to term limits, but they do have costs and benefits. One of the costs is that you have legislators coming in who don’t understand the system or how government works. They have these preconceived culture war ideas about the harm government causes, and they don’t understand the value of certain programs or the way the environmental and legal systems work.
It takes years to acquire the knowledge they need to make better decisions. By the time a legislator comes to the end of their term, they are far better versed in the legal system and restrictions upon their ability to change the law. They generally understand that there are a lot of very good people, including lobbyists, who are trying to help make better law. They’re willing to work with us to make sure that the public can engage in decision-making processes and that the things their constituents care about are protected.
It used to be that you had more middle-of-the-road people. You don’t have that anymore. In some ways, redistricting has really harmed the middle-of-the-road class because now we have all of these safe districts where as long as you have the right letter behind your name, you’re going to win. We would have a better legislative branch if we had more competition for seats, which would lead to more competition of ideas.
MTFP: Montana is going through some growing pains. There’s considerable angst about the future of The Last Best Place, or the Treasure State, if you prefer that moniker. Is this something MEIC has thought about? If yes, how is MEIC adapting?
Hedges: I think we’re generally seeing urban areas get bluer and rural areas get redder. That said, I also think that many people who move here expect to be served by the government the way they were in the blue states they came from. Their initial reaction might be to vote for conservatives, but I think we’re seeing a shift. After the last census, I think the state will be a little more evenly divided and Democrats won’t be on their heels quite so much. I think that dynamic will increase over time.
One problem we see is that we have people, of all political affiliations, moving here to live the Montana dream. They want to live outside of town on 20 acres located along a waterway. What they bring with them is nutrient pollution, habitat loss and more vehicle miles traveled, which leads to increasing traffic congestion and climate problems.
They’re not bad people — they are often great people — but they don’t understand that they are bringing what they fled from. We need to have better systems in place to steer them toward a more sustainable lifestyle for the environment and local communities. We have to do more education and outreach to help people understand that they don’t want to create what they’ve fled. They may not see it because it’s so much better than where they come from, but we see it.
MTFP: There aren’t many Montana-based nonprofits that have hit the 50-year mark. MEIC has approximately 5,000 members, up from 800 in the nonprofit’s infancy. What do you attribute MEIC’s longevity to?
Hedges: Organizations like ours have to get results for members and maintain staff. You do that by making it a fun, effective place to work. I think that more than anything else, the institutional knowledge of our staff has created power for the organization.
Because we’re a nonprofit, we don’t pay terribly competitive salaries — certainly not compared to the private sector, and not even compared to the public sector — so we’ve got to provide other benefits. People have to feel good about what they’re doing at the end of the day and they need to have the time to enjoy the places they’re trying to protect.
MTFP: Anything I haven’t asked that feels pertinent as you reflect on MEIC’s 50th anniversary?
Hedges: We wouldn’t be anything without the people of this state. While we get some foundation funding, most of our funding comes from our members, many of whom have been contributing since the 1970s. They’re people who care about Montana and the next 50 years.
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