Ochenski: Boiling point 

Triple-digit temps portend a long, hot summer

In the old days, when the temperature in Montana blew past 90, it was rightfully considered too damn hot. But nowadays, we’re clicking into the triple digits on an all-too-regular basis as rivers drop, forests burn and crops shrivel. The extreme heat also seems to be affecting the brains of those who claim to “lead” us. Although the political rhetoric, like the temperature, is climbing off the charts, real solutions to the plethora of tough issues facing the state are as rare as mid-summer snows.

Stacked on top of five years of savage drought, Montanans hoped a decent winter combined with a relatively wet spring might spare us from another summer of conflagration. But no such luck. The triple-digit temperatures and an almost total lack of rain are sparking fires across much of the West, and a thick horizontal smear of purple-orange smoke has returned to our skies.

While it might be obvious that we have an abundance of hot air right now, there’s nothing like burning forests to get mentally-dormant, largely incapable politicians huffing away like bellows. Chief among these is Gov. Judy Martz, who has decided “forest health” is now her primary goal in life. The answer to forest fires, according to Judy’s simplistic logic, is to turn the chainsaws loose—oops, I mean “the physicians of the forest”—and get rid of those pesky trees. That doing so means less shade, less water retention, and consequently a drier, more fire-prone forest seems to have been left out of the equation. Plus, with atmospheric humidity hovering in the single digits and many live trees containing less moisture than kiln-dried lumber, nothing is going to stop the forests from burning.

Addressing global warming, the root cause of the triple-digit temps, makes a lot more sense. It might actually be better to have more trees standing to suck additional carbon dioxide out of the air and return our atmosphere to a cleaner, cooler condition. A recent EPA report on the climate contained an analysis of the disastrous effects global warming is causing, and it may have provided some clue as to the benefits cleaning up our act might bring. But unfortunately, we won’t get to read it because the Bush administration, in its oil-burning wisdom, deleted that section prior to publication.

Instead of reducing our pollution, the triple-digit temps have sent our energy consumption into the stratosphere, creating a continuous-loop system of cause and effect. So now we burn even more carbon-based fuel and produce even more pollution in order to generate the electricity to cool us down. Again, rather than address the cause of the extraordinary heat, our brilliant leaders flail away in crisis management mode, trying to convince us to build more power plants.

Plus, thanks to the catastrophe of utility deregulation, those who supply the power to our baking populace are fleecing us for every dime they can get, while teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Here again, the solution seems focused on the wrong end of the equation. While weighing a potentially disastrous move to use state funding to guarantee utility company power purchases at full market prices, our governor scoffs at any thought of public ownership of our energy sources. Had Montanans ignored the millions in false advertising spent by the power company cabal and moved to buy back our electrical power and distribution systems, does anyone except Martz truly believe we would be in worse shape now?

Nor do this summer’s hot issues—or the desperate responses to them—stop there. In a clear sign of heat-caused confusion, Gov. Martz has now endorsed plans to bring the world’s deadliest pathogens to the Bitterroot Valley. Why, you might ask, would we ever want to import such lethal agents as ebola to the banks of one of our most beautiful rivers in one of our most beautiful valleys? While there is no rational answer for this idiocy, the governor obviously feels Montana is so desperate that we can’t pass up the $66 million the federal government will spend to build a Biosafety Level 4 facility at the Rocky Mountain Lab in Hamilton.

Sensibly enough, local citizens are up in arms over the proposal, which besides bringing the deadly pathogens to the middle of town, also ensures that Montana will become a bulls-eye target for terrorists. Flying a plane into the lab sounds like a great way to release the pathogens into the atmosphere. And how handy is it that most of the deadly organisms proposed for the lab are air borne? But rest easy, Gov. Martz assures us ‘‘these decisions are based on science, not emotion. They have the scientific background and I think they’re pretty confident they’re doing the right thing.’’ Nothing like “pretty confident they’re doing the right thing” to make you sleep well at night, ehh?

Our state’s troubles, like the triple-digit temperatures, are predicted to continue, and with access to recreational lands closing, tempers are likely to flare as Montanans get boxed into ever-hotter homes and cities, denied even the opportunity to seek respite in nature. The good news is that eventually the seasons will change and the snows will come. The bad news is that between now and then we can plan on spending at least another month scorching in the oven of our own creation and watching our politicians try to find someone or something besides their own failed policies to blame.

In our super-heated summer, it might be smart for us to make an effort to discern the truth from the heat-caused mirages shimmering on the horizon. We don’t need to import deadly pathogens to our fair state, we don’t need to cut down our forests to “save them,” and we surely don’t need to bail out failing utility companies with public funds.

What we really need are some competent leaders with real solutions to our triple-digit problems. But like the cooling snows, those are likely to be some time coming.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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