A False Economy 

Why environmentalism is still good for business

It was an angry crowd—hundreds of snowmobilers—that overfilled a hotel banquet room in Kalispell a couple weeks ago. They roared against conservationists who are pushing the Flathead National Forest to enforce its own rules establishing certain areas in the Whitefish Range for backcountry skiing and wildlife security.

Thanks to recent technological advances, snowmobilers now race their machines virtually everywhere in these mountains west of Glacier National Park. They’re bumping against a growing number of backcountry skiers who enjoy fresh powder on quiet alpine slopes. And they’re bouncing against scientific studies that show how the secretive lynx and wolverines are adversely impacted by unlimited snowmobiling.

The snowmobile leaders promised to “smash” those who stood in their way. Regardless of laws and biology, they demanded the right to motor through every snowy basin and over every alpine ridge. Anything less would be an affront to their way of life and to businesses tied to snowmobiling.

The scene might have looked familiar to early Flathead County champions of Glacier National Park, who were pummeled by local businesses and newspapers that were opposed to creating the national park in 1910. A national park would “lock up” an area that was rich in timber, minerals and potential homesteads, they thundered. Glacier Park, of course, has emerged as the Flathead’s economic magnet, far from the bane to business park opponents asserted it would be.

But the angry crowd would have looked even more familiar to Loren Kreck, a retired Columbia Falls dentist who with his late wife Mary stood virtually alone against a similar mob in the 1970s. The Krecks’ battle against air pollution by the Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant demonstrates that conservation initiatives are more likely to boost than destroy local economies.

An avid outdoorsman, Dr. Kreck began observing grotesque deformities in the teeth of deer and other mammals in the late 1960s. At the same time, he observed severe defoliation of trees around Columbia Falls. He traced the damage to air pollution produced by the aluminum plant, specifically fluoride emissions, which was soon confirmed by a Forest Service study.

In 1970, the Krecks filed a class action lawsuit to force CFAC to clean up its emissions. Egged on by the powerful Anaconda Company, the town of Columbia Falls went ballistic. The lawsuit would destroy CFAC and eliminate hundreds of jobs, residents cried.

Kreck’s dentistry business shrunk to a handful of clients. The Kalispell law firm handling the case boarded up its windows to discourage brick throwers. And many Flathead Valley motorists sported a popular bumper sticker that read “To Heck with Kreck.”

To make a long story short, Kreck’s lawsuit forced CFAC to cut its fluoride emissions from 10,000 pounds a day to 861 pounds.

By all rights, the city of Columbia Falls should present Loren Kreck with a plaque of appreciation. For not only is the ecosystem recovering from fluoride poisoning, but the CFAC plant is open today because of the Krecks. After CFAC spent millions of dollars to scrub its emissions, the aluminum market took a dive. The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), which took over Anaconda’s Montana properties in the mid-1970s, wanted out of the aluminum business. The Flathead plant was inefficient and far removed from world markets. The liabilities were many, but at least the air was clean.

Had ARCO not fixed its enormous pollution problem a few years earlier, the plant’s liabilities would have overwhelmed its viability, and CFAC would have closed. As it was, ARCO executive Brad Duker took a chance on world metal markets and paid the company $1 for the plant. It was a fortuitous decision, as metal prices did rebound. Duker became a wealthy man, and CFAC remains a major Flathead Valley employer.

Now I’ll admit that Loren Kreck is one of my heroes, and it’s long been my lonely speculation that CFAC would have closed if not for his courageous stand. But parallels with snowmobilers’ recent wave of indignation at conservationists prompted me to test my theory.

I ran this idea past Bob Brown, External Affairs Manager for CFAC and the former President of the Montana Senate. Rummaging through three decades of CFAC history, Brown endorsed my theory.

“There’s probably no question that CFAC’s emissions problem would have been an enormous legal and political liability when ARCO decided to rid itself of this plant,” Brown said. “Aluminum prices were low, and it already was a big crapshoot for Duker to take over the plant. It’s very conceivable that the CFAC plant wouldn’t have been worth the risk if the fluoride problem wasn’t fixed. Although it was pretty controversial at the time, cleaning up the emissions might be the reason CFAC is still open today.”

Strike another blow against the tired “environment vs. the economy” argument. And let us offer a Thanksgiving toast to the brave heroes, like Loren Kreck, who historically—and currently—defend Montana’s environment in the face of bitter opposition.

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