Our Worst Nightmare 

What every voter should know about People for Montana

A couple weeks back, gubernatorial candidate Mark O’Keefe got himself in a lot of hot water by saying he was the “worst nightmare” for a group of corporations that had formed an alliance to trash his campaign. Since then, that “phrase fatale” has shown up in TV ads continuously, is used by his opponent Judy Martz against him in every debate, and constantly referred to in news articles. While O’Keefe does damage control, the mis-named corporate alliance, People for Montana, continues to finance shock ads as they battle for swing votes.

The swing votes come from those who have not yet made up their minds. In Montana, these folks are either fiercely independent or more likely, just too damn busy trying to make ends meet to pay much attention to the amorphous promises of politicians. People for Montana, on the other hand, is both paying attention and spending enormous amounts of money to influence the outcome of this race. Given their record in Montana, this corporate cabal would more accurately be named “Pollute-o-Max, Inc.” They have a fortune to gain from a friendly ear like Judy Martz in the Governor’s Office and are spending a fortune to make sure they get one. Take a look at the corporations calling themselves People for Montana and judge for yourself.

Burlington Northern & Plum Creek: To help settle the West, the federal government induced railroads to lay track up the valleys of western Montana by granting them checkerboarded sections of land on both sides of the tracks. A century later, there is virtually no rail access to most valleys and no passenger service available for most of the state’s population. In many valleys, even the track is gone, but the railroads got to keep the land. Plum Creek, a Burlington Northern spinoff, was formed to take advantage of those resources. In the ’80s, Plum Creek liquidated its timber holdings, affecting the landscape so extensively they inhibited timber harvest on surrounding federal forests. Now that the trees are gone, Plum Creek is turning to subdivision and selling off huge tracts of land, creating yet more impacts. Meanwhile, many of Burlington Northern’s facilities are on the state’s Mini-Superfund cleanup list because of toxic pollution. The next governor will have much to say about subdivision laws, water quality laws, toxic cleanups and tax policy.

Golden Sunlight: This large cyanide heap-leach gold mine near Whitehall is nearing the end of its operating life. Reclaiming the open pit is a multi-million dollar topic of debate. A recent court ruling supported the Montana Constitutional requirement that lands disturbed by mining be reclaimed. In reaction, Montana’s Republican legislative majorities stuffed a bill through the June special session virtually exempting open pit mines from reclamation. The next governor may well hold the cards on deciding whether to create another Berkeley Pit at Golden Sunlight, or take the steps necessary to restore the ravaged landscape to environmental health.

Smurfit-Stone Container: The beauty of Missoula has been compromised for years by the air pollution generated by Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. Less visible is Stone’s contribution to the pollution load in the already battered Clark Fork. Will we ever drive into Missoula without breathing pulp fumes? Will the Clark Fork ever become anything but an industrial sewer? The next governor will make decisions that may well lift Missoula from the fumes or sell its future down the river.

Wesco Resources: This company wants to build a railroad through the Tongue River Valley. For years, Wesco has been fighting environmental groups and ranchers who say the railroad will trash the environment and destroy the ranches. Millions will rest on the outcome and the next administration will definitely influence the decision.

Washington Corp.: Owner Denny Washington is now one of the nation’s wealthiest individuals thanks to industrial revenues generated by heavy construction, purchase of Burlington Northern’s southern rail lines and copper mines in Butte. The heads of the agencies that regulate air and water quality, mining reclamation and highway construction will all be appointed by the next governor. Vested interest? You bet.

Montana Power Company: Once thought of as “our power company,” MPC aggressively lobbied the ’97 Legislature to pass electricity deregulation. Following that hasty legislative decision, the company announced it was selling all the hydro dams on our major rivers, its coal-fired power plants and finally, just this year, the remnants of the company’s energy holdings and distribution systems to out-of-state corporations. For Montanans, deregulation means higher electric rates—some so high that they have put Montanans out of business. But for MPC, the ability to manipulate the Legislature and Governor’s Office was very profitable, a situation they would like to see continue in the future.

The same goes for the rest of the timber, oil and industrial corporations who facetiously call themselves People for Montana. From environmental protection to tax policy, they all have hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in who becomes Montana’s next governor. And that’s why they are trying so hard to make sure it is not Mark O’Keefe.

O’Keefe is working hard to repair the damage he inflicted on his own campaign with his “worst nightmare” comment. But there is another “worst nightmare” out there—the continued corporate domination of Montana. For the last century we have suffered tremendous damages as corporate polluters dodged laws, blew off responsibility for their actions and fled the state in bankruptcy. In too many cases, it is left to us, the taxpayers, to clean up the mess. We have just begun a new century and we have the chance to throw off the old corporate collar. My “worst nightmare” is that we blow this opportunity and leave future generations to pick up the tab for the same fiscal and environmental disasters we inherited from the past. The choice is up to us.
George Ochenski has lobbied the Legislature since 1985, primarily on environmental, tribal and public interest issues. You can contact him at ochenski@ixi.net. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.

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