Montana, as we are reminded virtually every day, is so much more than the rancorous debates taking place in the political arena. As this November edges toward Thanksgiving, few Montanans are spending time worrying about what the Republicans are saying about the Democrats, what the Democrats are saying about the Republicans, or what the governor is saying about much of anything. Instead, they’re getting their houses ready for winter, hoping for some snow to help the hunters stock their larders, and preparing for a holiday season in which, as much as any in recent memory, we all take a moment to realize how much we have for which to be thankful.
Across the street, my neighbor and his son pull a four-point mule deer buck from the back of their truck, going through a ritual that far predates recorded history. The father handles the knife, then passes it to the son, who makes the cuts to begin the process of turning the once-prancing buck into venison that will help nourish their family through the long winter ahead. It is easy for Montanans to take such a common thing as being able to hunt healthy, wild game for granted. But in most places in our nation, it’s a rare thing indeed. Game populations have been decimated, their habitat destroyed, and the opportunities for a father and his son or daughter to share the bond of a successful hunt is the exception, not the rule. Even in other western states where sufficient habitat remains, fatal afflictions such as chronic wasting disease compete with hunters for the game. Montana’s wild herds of deer and elk are expected to remain free of this deadly disease, but not by accident. In large part, the future health of Montana’s deer and elk looks good because Montanans voted to pass an initiative prohibiting the expansion of game farms—which are the only places chronic wasting disease has shown up in the state.
While geese wing southward in enormous undulating Vs, many Montanans are taking advantage of the mild fall weather to enjoy our world-famous rivers before winter’s snow and cold seal them in an icy grip. Here in Montana, our waters still flow clean and hold healthy populations of world-class trout, while abundant waterfowl fill the backwaters and prairie ponds. For the most part, the trout in Montana’s blue-ribbon streams are wild, naturally-reproducing fish, not “catchable” hatchery fish dumped out of the back of a truck into rivers too degraded to support clean, natural spawning gravel. Here, it is still possible to watch trout and salmon build their spawning redds, lay their eggs, and look forward to another year in which Mother Nature, not hatcheries, will select the strongest for survival in the never-ending bid to perpetuate and strengthen the species. This too, is not by accident, but by the efforts of Montanans over many years to fight for water quality standards and set policies that maintain and enhance our streams and rivers for the natural propagation of our fisheries.
Of course, Montana has its share of problems, too. While folks in central and eastern Montana openly wonder at concerns about “open space,” the reality in western Montana is the alarming pace at which former ranchlands are turning into subdivisions. We also have the somewhat dubious distinction of being home to the largest single Superfund site in the nation—a leftover from our first century as a state, when tearing metals from the belly of the earth was more important than considerations of the deadly mess left behind for future generations. The drought, too, is hitting us hard as year stacks up on year, withering crops, desiccating soils, and reducing rivers and streams to mere trickles. Changing global weather patterns might be tough to accomplish from Montana, but we can deal with most of our other problems through public policy decisions that fix what’s wrong, maintain what’s right, and set our state on a stable, sustainable course into the future. Which brings us back to politics.
Being thankful for Montana also includes being grateful for our fellow citizens who wade into the public policy arena as elected officials and issue advocates. We may not, and usually don’t, always agree with each other or our politicians. But that, too, is something for which we should be thankful. In a free society, it is our right to hold and voice our opinions, and to “ride herd” on those who would lead us. With that right comes the responsibility to ensure that the decisions affecting our daily lives are made through open public debate, to demand ethical behavior from elected officials, and to make sure our public resources are not traded or given away to private interests who would plunder our great state. In spite of the sometimes-acerbic debates, it is only through this process that we hammer out the policies by which we, as a people, make the rules we all have to live by in this wild paradise.
This Thanksgiving, when the sunrise turns our vast prairies to a sea of orange and purple, the white summits of our spectacular mountains sparkle with new snow, and the sunset is reflected in the broad rivers flowing through our wide valleys, we would do well to reflect on our good fortune to live in this place called Montana and be thankful. If and when politics comes up—and it often does during get-togethers with family and friends—we should also remember that much of what we have is only here because of those who had the courage and commitment to enter the public policy arena and fight for what they hold dear. For we alone are the stewards of the present, and it is our actions (or inactions) that will determine how many of the state’s treasures remain so future generations, like us, will have plenty of reasons to be thankful for living in Montana.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.