Giving thanks 

Recognizing what makes Montana a great place to live

In the not-too-distant past, Montana's ski areas had one hard and fast rule of business—you either opened by Thanksgiving or you probably wouldn't succeed. As we all know, global climate change has certainly wreaked havoc with that old saw. But then along comes a year like this one in which traditional Thanksgiving weather has returned to our wonderful state with deep snow, frigid temps and howling winds. And once again, there's plenty to be thankful about for the Montanans who tough it out and call this place home.

Probably first out of the chute in the "thanks" department should come from those who hunt our big game to fill their freezers and feed their families. The big snows did the trick and pushed the elk down from the high mountains where, from the looks of all the legs sticking out of the back of pickup trucks, the harvest in the last week has been very good. While that may not seem like a big deal for many folks, it doesn't take a long memory to recall that in the past several years we have watched hunting seasons come and mostly go before the snow fell, if it fell at all. Given the nation's tough economic times, the abundance of game available to Montana's hunters is truly something to be thankful for. Somehow, there's a great deal of comfort in having a full freezer in this precarious, unpredictable chapter of our history.

Next up might well be something a lot smaller than elk...the bark beetle. Those nefarious little buggers have killed a couple million acres of lodgepole and Doug Fir trees in the last few years. The explosion in their population is primarily attributed, like so many other impacts, to global warming. Forests suffering from prolonged drought cannot fight off the beetle attacks by generating sap to push them back out of their bark. And so the beetles win and the trees die.

But this year, like last year, we're getting a hand from Mother Nature to balance things out. Last year's October sub-zero weather put a quick end to the multiple mating cycles of the beetles and, as a result, this year's infestation was considerably less than expected. And now, once again, we can all be grateful that those tiny little rice-size insects are dying in droves thanks to yet another bout of sub-zero weather. Coupled with our recent cold, wet summer, there's new hope that we may have outlasted this beetle rampage across Montana—and the political posturing that went along with it.

We can also be thankful that Montana remains far away from the economic tidal waves that have crashed over much of the nation. Historically, Big Sky Country has always lagged behind the rest of the country in boom times. And yeah, it's true that we putt along near the bottom of the barrel in per-capita income no matter which political party or big-talking politicians are in charge, but the opposite side of that coin is also true. By the time the big economic busts sweep the prosperous regions, throwing people out of their homes and jobs and bringing calamitous social upheaval, Montana sees only minimal impacts. After all, with less than a million people in the fourth largest state, there's only so much they can affect us. We may be slow, but we're relatively steady and, given the choice, I'd say we can be thankful for that.

And then, of course, there are our fellow Montanans to celebrate. We're still one of those states where people stop to help pull you out of the snowbank or ditch—and they don't ask which political party you belong to before they hook up the chain, either. It's a well-known fact that, as Montanans, we have much, much more in common than to dispute. When you go to the lunch room in the timber mill, they won't be talking about politics, they'll be talking about where they've been hunting and fishing, where they're taking the family camping next, or where and how they're planning to recreate. Not surprisingly, you'll find the same conversations in the offices of environmental groups.

The simple truth is that we live here because we love this place. We can argue like hell over public policy, wolves, mining and logging, but in the end, we can also set those arguments aside in our mutual love for Montana. In more than two decades of lobbying, it's easy to recount the ferocious battles in the Capitol that, at the end of the day, were set aside so personal, not political, relationships could continue. Somehow, if we fight the battles honorably, win or lose, it's easier to remember that Montana is a state full of individuals, that a personal opinion is everyone's right, and that in the end, we're all going to be here for the foreseeable future.

So this Thanksgiving, take a look around that table of family and friends and feel free to gush about the great good fortune we all have to be able to live in such a tremendous place. Let the politicians and talking heads continue their senseless battles, yelling at each other to no discernible outcome, and concentrate on matters closer to home.

We'll be eating locally raised turkey, locally grown vegetables, and pumpkin pie made from locally grown pie pumpkins so sweet and rich and orange they seem to glow. We'll be thankful for the dead beetles and the deep snow, the full freezer and the love of friends and family. And we'll be toasting our good fortune with locally brewed beer while the weather rages outside.

In the end, Thanksgiving in Mon-tana is pretty easy. No matter where you came from, if you're in Montana now, treat your fellow Montanans right, show respect for the diversity of thought that the vast expanses of nature imbue in us and, most important of all, be damn thankful for Montana...there's no place like it.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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