All things considered, we have it pretty sweet in Missoula. Sure, we’re the national headquarters of the three-job household, the cost of housing outpaces prevailing wages, and half our residents probably qualify for federal housing assistance. Yes, our schools and universities are severely underfunded by a tight-fisted Legislature, our educators are among the lowest paid in the nation, and one in five of our children lives in poverty. And if you’re poor with a toothache, don’t even think of getting to see a dentist before the Bush Administration is out of office.
Still, when you compare our social ills to those in other metropolitan areas—gang violence, racial strife, corrupt and out-of-control police departments, traffic jams that snake to the horizon—a knapweed-infested hillside doesn’t sound so terrible.
So, if things are tough all over, why the annual bitch-fest? Do Missoulians really need to be reminded why we don’t like it here?
Well, yes. After all, most cynics are really just idealists in disguise, and if we occasionally take a public official to task for doing a particularly unsatisfactory job, or criticize a local business for being an irresponsible corporate citizen, it’s because we know they can do better. We expect those who command wealth, power and influence over their fellow citizens to live up to the terms of their social contract. And when they’re delinquent in their duties, the Missoula Independent will let them know it.
Worst perversion of the public airwaves: John Stokes
It’s somewhat akin to planting a boot to the rump of a guy who hangs a “kick me” sign on his own back, but it’s hard to imagine a worst-of list that wouldn’t include vitriolic Kalispell radio station owner and talk-show host John Stokes.
For the uninitiated, Stokes is the host of “The Edge,” a three-hour, weekday talk show that serves as the crown jewel of KGEZ-AM’s programming. The show is built around a politically-charged call-in format, similar in structure to Rush Limbaugh’s popular syndicated program. Stokes addresses an issue or issues of the day through a monologue, and then receives calls from his audience, many of whom share his beliefs in much the same manner that “Dittoheads” fall in line behind Limbaugh.
In the last year alone, Stokes has perpetrated some of the most egregious transgressions against basic human dignity that this region has seen from a public figure.
In October, Stokes attempted to whip would-be Flathead Valley libertarians into a frenzy by forwarding and promoting on-air an e-mail, from an anonymous source, that called for a systematic destruction of the public gates that bar motor vehicles from Forest Service roads as access corridors to the backcountry. He termed this endorsement of vandalism “G.O.D.,” or Gate Opening Days.
Though the FS reported minimal damage from the G.O.D. campaign, Stokes continued to build his inflammatory rhetoric against the environmental movement, calling enviros “Green Nazis,” “The Fourth Reich,” and, paradoxically, “Marxists and Communists.” Such language grabbed the attention of the Helena-based Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN), to whom Stokes refers, in a bit of Limbaughdian cleverness, as the “Montana for Human Rights Nitwits.”
When the MHRN sponsored a Flathead Valley visit by Klaus Stern, a Holocaust survivor who had spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp and endured the murder of 35 members of his family at the hands of the Third Reich, Stern took Stokes to task for his flippant use of the term “Nazi.” Stokes then told Stern on the air to “get [his] head out of [his] butt,” and responded to Stern’s treatment at the hand of the Nazis by saying, “too bad, so sad, get over it.”
Matters came to a head in May and early June, when both KGEZ and some local businesses became the targets of vandals. The radio station incurred some nasty spray-painted messages, and the businesses, targeted by Stokes on his show when they appeared on a contributor list for an environmental group, began seeing green swastika decals on their shop windows. On a more serious note, both Stokes and environmental groups and individual activists, mentioned specifically by Stokes on his show, received a series of e-mail threats that, according to Flathead County Attorney Tom Esch, “bordered on criminal behavior.” An individual, determined to be the author of at least one of the messages, was tracked down and told to desist. No further reports of threats have occurred since then.
Earlier this summer, Stokes burned a green swastika to protest Earth Day, and later rounded up a cadre of gun-loving protectionists and held a gathering during which a United Nations flag was shot to bits.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Stokes’ behavior is his willingness to mangle the truth to further his own cause, whether it be his pocketbook or his message. In an interview with the Helena Independent Record last month, Stokes claimed that an independent radio ratings company determined his station to be the top dog in the Kalispell market and number two for the overall region. A statement to advertisers on KGEZ’s website proclaims, “Let the popularity of Montana’s newest and number one station work for you.” Research done by the MHRN indicates, however, that the company cited by Stokes in fact lists the station as the third-most listened to station in the Kalispell market, and the number seven station in the region. The MHRN has filed a formal complaint against the station with the state and Federal Communications Commission.
Furthermore, much of Stokes’ diatribe against the environmental movement is based, presumably, on a scholarly essay entitled “Ecofacism: Lessons from the German Experience,” by Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier. The essay, which can be accessed through the station’s website, tracks an arm of German nationalist thought, called the Völkisch Movement and dating back to the mid-1800s, which combined an early strain of environmentalism with xenophobic nationalism. This appears to be the basis for Stokes’ contention that the modern environmental movement is a precursor to the birth of a new Nazism, the so-called “Fourth Reich.” However, a statement in that very essay cuts the legs out from under that argument: “The experience of the ‘green wing’ of German fascism is a sobering reminder of the political volatility of ecology. It certainly does not indicate any inherent or inevitable connection between ecological issues and right-wing politics,” write Biehl and Staudenmaier.
Right-wing oddballs who distort information for their own murky causes are nothing new to our state, as the Freemen so aptly demonstrated. Having one spew his vitriol over public airways is another matter, though, and that’s why John Stokes makes our list of dubious achievers.
Worst investment in higher education:The firing of UM’s adjunct professors
Montana appeared to be in a race to the academic bottom with Mississippi last year when the University of Montana’s administration announced it was firing nearly two dozen adjunct professors.
Or was it more an overreaction to an upsetting of the status quo?
Nearly a year ago UM faced a budget shortfall of $300,000. The administration, with the support of its new provost, Lois Muir, opted to amend that shortfall by not rehiring about 20 adjunct professors in the spring 2001 semester. Adjuncts teach primarily lower division courses, and the decision to not rehire some of them meant fewer classes and larger classes.
The community—both academic and non-academic—reacted to the decision by staging a “teach-out” at the UM oval, and by forming a coalition called The Campaign to Defend Education at the University of Montana. The University Faculty Association (UFA) also took the unusual step of speaking to Montanans directly through newspaper, television and radio ads.
In a press release last January, Bill Chaloupka, UM political scientist and president of the UFA, appealed to the public for support, not only for the adjuncts but for higher education in general, which the UFA feared was in a downward spiral. “We know that higher education works for Montana in terms of economic development and the benefits of an educated citizenry. We also recognize that Montana ignores its responsibility to fund higher education at its own peril,” wrote Chaloupka. “If Montana is determined to compete with Mississippi in a race to the bottom of the educational barrel, it must accept the fact that economic development driven by high-tech firms will pass this state by.”
A broad spectrum of the community signed a letter to UM President George Dennison last December, asking him to rehire the adjuncts, and was signed by 24 organizations as diverse as Students for a Free Tibet, the Lumber, Production and Industrial Workers Local 3038 and the Catholic Campus Ministry. It was to no avail, since the spring semester opened and closed without the adjunct professors.
At the heart of the controversy was Provost Muir, who spent her first autumn in Montana ducking the slings and arrows aimed in her direction. Hired from Ohio’s Kent State University, Muir arrived at UM on July 1, 2000 with plenty of baggage, though few at the time were aware of her past academic travails. During the adjunct controversy someone began circulating copies of a 1997 New York Times article about a federal court case to which Muir was an indirect party. According to the article, Dr. Candace Kaspers, a one-time chair of the communications department at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, successfully sued the university when Muir, then dean at KSU, demoted Kaspers after she complained to Muir that the dismissal of the only Jewish professors at KSU could leave the university vulnerable to discrimination charges. A federal court jury awarded Kaspers $275,000 for being demoted in retaliation for discussing her concerns with Muir.
The anonymous circulation of the Times article fomented another storm of criticism and controversy—mostly against Muir. As a result of the KSU lawsuit, Muir was either fired as dean of the school’s arts, humanities and social sciences department, or left voluntarily. Though Muir says she left KSU of her own volition, KSU president Betty Siegel testified at the Kaspers trial that Muir had been fired. The truth will probably not be known, but for Muir, last year was an experience that taught her something about UM and Missoula.
At most colleges and universities, adjuncts are typically hired and let go on a regular basis, depending on the school’s budget. “I walked in (last fall) and found people were planning to hire people and didn’t have the money,” she says.
At a different school, that lack of money, and the financial inability to hire adjuncts, would simply mean fewer adjuncts. But at UM some adjuncts had been in place for two decades. And though the previous provost would somehow come up with the money each fall to hire adjuncts in the spring, Muir says the system was broke and needed fixing.
“I think what I ran into was a surprise,” she now says. “But it was helpful in that I learned about the University of Montana and the community.”
What she learned, Muir says, was that in a small town like Missoula, jobs are dearly held. And there’s always been an assumption that adjuncts, though not tenured but hired on a semester-by-semester basis, would always have their jobs, budget shortfalls or no.
The adjunct fight brought out both the best and worst of Missoula. For Muir, who underwent a trial by fire, the job now is to get the university back on solid financial footing, while at the same time creating opportunities for programs like on-line courses and night and weekend courses. “We just had to outgrow methods that just weren’t working.”
Worst pending environmental disaster: The BNF Burned Area Draft EIS
At the risk of irritating virtually everyone associated with it, let’s discuss why the Bitterroot National Forest’s Burned Area Recovery Draft Environmental Impact Statement (BAR-DEIS) is about the worst thing to come out of the Bitterroot since the Forest Service tried to convince people that clearcuts were just “temporary meadows.”
First, this BAR-DEIS is based on the notion that a burned area will “recover” only with the help of the Forest Service. Remember, this is the agency that for decades has acted as the principal liaison between public lands and private industry. It is the Forest Service that comes up with big landscape decisions that look good on paper: clearcutting, aggressive firefighting, roads where no roads should be. But it’s the succeeding generations who either have to live with such environmental mistakes, or who have to raise the money to go to court to make them right again. Think again of those clearcuts that will never heal in our lifetimes, or the terraced plantations that were built into hillsides and then quickly ignored, or the encouragement of illegal off-road vehicle use in wilderness study areas, or the logging-damaged watersheds. With such a legacy, one has to ask the Forest Service: Why should we trust you this time?
In its massive BAR-DEIS, the Bitterroot National Forest has proposed several alternatives for righting the results of the terrible fires of 2000. Among the most extreme is a proposal to log 280 million board feet of timber. At the other end of the spectrum is the usual “no action” alternative, with a number of other options sandwiched in between.
What’s wrong with the BAR-DEIS is that it largely ignores science, including the agency’s own studies. For instance, one of the ideas behind the plan is that removing burned timber will preclude future fires. It’s called the re-burn hypothesis, and while it sounds like common sense, there are no scientific studies to back it up. In fact, studies showing quite the opposite. A 1995 University of Oregon study on wildfire salvage logging, the so-called “Beschta Report,” declares, “There is little reason to believe that post-fire salvage logging has any positive ecological benefits. There is considerable evidence that persistent, significant adverse environmental impacts are likely to result from salvage logging.”
If the aim of the Bitterroot National Forest is to save homes by logging the forest, the agency needs to look no further than its own Jack Cohen, who has written that reducing the chances of homes catching fire depends on landscaping within 40 meters of the home. Clearing and thinning trees beyond that distance will not provide greater protection, though the BAR-DEIS calls for just that, partly in the name of protecting “communities.” The “communities” not protected, of course, are those of cavity-nesting birds and other species dependant upon unlogged forests.
The feeling about the fire season of 2000, both within the agency and without, is that it couldn’t have gotten any hotter. In fact, there is evidence to show that ferocious fires visited the dry forests of the interior west in 1889, 1872, 1736 and 1680. Last year was unique only in that in the intervening years, an entire logging industry has evolved. Now comes the environmental showdown.
If all goes true to form, the response to the BAR-DEIS will be thus: Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), in its usual, middle-aged, law-abiding, plodding manner, will read the EIS, find the scientific flaws and file an appeal once the plan is approved. The appeal will likely be upheld, forcing FOB’s hand. The group will then work the phones to raise money for a court challenge, which is certainly a lot less glamorous than sitting atop an ancient redwood for a couple of years, or unfurling banners from the 82nd floor of a city skyscraper. Poring over a two-inch thick, insomnia-curing document is more the FOB’s style.
But as this is the nation’s largest pending timber sale, it’s drawn other environmentalists’ attention. The word on the street is that FOB, a document-reading, non-tree-spiking group, has about as much control over the environmental response to this DEIS as Yassir Arafat does over the more militant Palestinians.
As one utterly nonmilitant FOBer puts it: “We ain’t seen nothing yet.” The challenge to come will likely be played out on the national stage, with the involvement of environmentalists who are—How should we put this?—young, impatient and less inclined to EIS study and more inclined to direct action.
Like the previous big-landscape ecological problem on the Bitterroot, the ’60s-era clearcut crisis, this up and comer BAR-DEIS will draw plenty of outside attention. In short, it’s headed for a national showdown.
Local environmentalists say the BAR-DEIS can be overturned relatively easily since it violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in numerous instances—violations that can be proved in federal court, if need be.
But it’s precisely because the document is so scientifically flawed that enviros are worried. Again, the word is that since the Feds won’t be able to defend the BAR-DEIS in a court of scientific and legal opinion, anti-enviro politicos will seek ways to circumvent the NEPA process entirely. Does anyone remember the onerous salvage rider? One fear is that Congress will attach the BAR-DEIS to a federal appropriations bill in the name of let’s-get-the-last-stick-off-the-mountain-at-any-cost-and-damn-the-science. If so, watch for the animosity to climb to whole new levels in this corner of the forest. For a small community like the Bitterroot, where neighborliness and courtesy have been a way of life for generations, it doesn’t get much worse.
Worst customer service: Qwest
This year’s choice was a no-brainer. There was, after all, that bit of unpleasantness in February when Qwest announced it was tearing down the Missoula peace sign, despite the results of an informal community survey showing an overwhelming majority of people supported leaving the controversial landmark where it was.
Qwest’s razing of the peace sign certainly didn’t rise to the level of corporate malevolence of, say, a W.R. Grace or a Boise Cascade. No one is accusing the phone company of killing off children or old people, fouling fisheries or decimating South American rainforests and indigenous cultures. And Qwest’s employees are a nice enough bunch, even if they are forced to work in one of the ugliest buildings downtown. Unfortunately, their hands are often tied by a bloated and poorly organized corporate bureaucracy, resulting in some of the worst customer service in Montana.
This is not our opinion alone. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the number of Americans who say they are dissatisfied with the quality of their local phone service rose from 10.5 percent in 1997 to nearly 17 percent in 2000. Complaints against the Baby Bells—that is, the companies like Qwest that were spun off when AT&T was declared a monopoly—have risen from 150 complaints for every 1 million lines in 1993 to nearly 450 complaints per 1 million lines last year, according to the FCC. And while the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Qwest had cut its complaint rate in half in 2000, Qwest was still leading the pack among the Bells for total complaints, at more than 500 per 1 million lines.
Keep in mind, those are just the complaints filed with the federal government, which don’t include grievances aired with the state Public Service Commission (PSC). Ask yourself how often you pick up the phone and complain to Washington, D.C. or Helena when your phone service is lousy. It’s reasonable to assume there are plenty more frustrated customers who haven’t made a formal gripe. For this story, however, we didn’t have travel beyond our own four walls to find an irate Qwest customer: Missoula Independent Publisher Matt Gibson. Consider his experiences:
May 2000: The Independent upgrades its phone service from analog to digital lines, in conjunction with a $10,000 internal phone system upgrade. The installation by Qwest is botched, causing the office to lose phone service for an entire day. Over the next week, the Independent cannot receive incoming calls on five of its six phone lines, significantly hampering its ability to gather news and conduct normal business. Nonetheless, the newspaper receives a bill for about $1,000 for installation costs. The publisher refuses to pay it.
In the weeks that follow, Gibson tries to find someone at Qwest to whom he can address a formal letter of complaint. After spending several hours on the phone, he is finally told by one Qwest customer service representative that there is no place to send such a letter and his best bet would be to log on to the Qwest website.
June 2000: Gibson drafts a formal letter to Qwest outlining his complaints with the paper’s phone service. He soon discovers that Qwest’s website has no place to lodge such complaints, only a small window for writing comments. Gibson pastes his letter into the window and sends it off. Three days later, he receives a phone call from a Qwest representative confirming the Independent’s account number and assuring him that someone will will follow up with his complaint, but nobody does.
August 2000: The Independent receives a disconnect notice from Qwest. After conversations with various Qwest representatives, a “do not treat” notice is placed on the Independent account, which, Gibson is told, means service will continue until the dispute is resolved. A month later, the paper receives another disconnect notice.
“At that point I started telling them, ‘You guys are the worst company on Earth. You provide the least satisfying customer service I’ve ever experienced,’” recalls Gibson. “And the rep agreed with me.” January 2001: The Independent receives the new Qwest phone directories. The Missoula Independent is not listed. When a complaint is called in, a Qwest representative says that the account is marked as unlisted. The Independent’s business manager explains that no request for an unlisted number was ever made, and that it is vital for the paper’s phone number to be easy to find. The Qwest representative says the directory will be corrected next year. The following month, the Independent phone bill includes a $12 charge for changing the directory listing.
February 2001: After months of silence, Qwest sends another disconnect notice. Gibson calls the company to remind them of the as-yet unresolved dispute, prompting an offer to credit the account $400. When Gibson explains to the Qwest rep that the disputed amount is $1,000, the Qwest rep argues that $400 is standard charge for installation service, and that the paper isn’t entitled to any additional credit. When asked if she can look up the bill on the Qwest computer, the rep cannot do so. Gibson sends a letter to Qwest threatening a formal complaint with the Public Service Commission. April 2001: While Gibson is on vacation, Qwest leaves a phone message at his private residence, but doesn’t explain the reason for the call. The Independent’s phone service is disconnected the following day. After being contacted by the Independent, a Qwest representative discovers that a decision has been made to resolve the dispute in the Independent’s favor, but no one from Qwest had bothered to inform the Independent, or their own billing department, for that matter. Even after Qwest recognized its own error, the Independent is told it will take 24 to 48 hours to restore phone service.
“How would you characterize a company like that?” asks Gibson. “Inept. Unresponsive. Unconcerned. They provide the most unsatisfactory customer service I have ever experienced from any company in my career. And we were a $12,000-a-year client for them.”
The Independent has since switched its phone service to a local competitor.