At it alone: An Earth Day salute to conscientious Montanans

Way back in 1970, Americans instituted the concept of Earth Day. They deemed April 22 the day when we would put our relationship to our beautiful blue planet back in perspective. The idea was simple: Over time, with education and commitment, we could restore the environmental damages of the past and go forward with a greater appreciation for the frailty of nature by conserving more, consuming less and passing on a cleaner and more sustainable planet to future generations.

For those who were young adults in the ’60s and ’70s, the concept of taking care of the planet instead of ruthlessly exploiting it for whatever we wanted made good sense. In fact, many say the original Earth Day celebrations, in which some 20 million Americans participated, gave birth to the concept of environmental advocacy and activism across the globe.

Montana was no exception to the wave of newfound environmental consciousness. The drafters of the 1972 Constitution, fully aware of the degradations heaped upon the state’s lands and waters by mining and other resource extraction industries, filled the state’s guiding document with environmental protections. Article II, the Declaration of Rights, includes in Section 3 “the right to a clean and healthful environment.” That guarantee is expanded upon in Article IX, Environment and Natural Resources, in Section 1:  “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Section 2, Reclamation, follows with the mandate that: “All lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed.” To make it more than an empty phrase, the drafters instituted a $100 million Resource Indemnity Trust Fund fueled by “such taxes on the extraction of natural resources as the legislature may from time to time impose for that purpose.”

Going further, the new constitution also contained a severance tax on coal since Montana was being touted as “the boiler room for the nation” while enormous strip mines and coal-fired power plants were being built. The Coal Tax Trust Fund was established in the constitution and, despite being attacked for years, having the tax rate slashed and funds diverted from their original intent, the coal severance tax has generated more than a billion dollars in revenue since its inception, with about half that remaining in the permanent trust and its subsidiary trusts.

In the ensuing decades, the state has moved forward to implement a number of visionary programs to address environmental problems. In the mid-’80s, Montana’s so-called “mini-Superfund” program was instituted and funded with interest from the Resource Indemnity Trust Fund. The program cleaned hundreds of toxic and hazardous waste sites across the state that would not qualify for the national Superfund program. On a parallel path, the Underground Storage Tank program was established to clean up leaking underground storage tanks. In the mid-’90s, the Future Fisheries Improvement Act was passed to funnel millions of dollars into restoring damaged streams to health to improve natural reproduction for Montana’s legendary wild trout. 

But now, sad to say, leadership in environmental policy has slipped from the prominence of the past—at least in the political arena. Nothing could offer more proof than the 2009 Montana Legislature. Forgetting the lessons of the past and ignoring their constitutional mandates, this session has actually thrown the state into reverse on environmental protection with measures that, once again, favor industry over citizens.

The 2009 Legislature shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. Gov. Brian Schweitzer once told a cheering crowd on the campaign trail that “the real treasure in Montana is the land, not what lies underneath it.” But once in office, Schweitzer became the cheerleader-in-chief for massive development of Montana’s energy resources, saying he now wants more pipelines, more transmission lines, more oil, gas, and coal production while crooning a “clean and green” line that stands in diametric opposition to what’s actually happening. More coal mines are not clean and green. Nor are more oil and gas wells. Nor are more coal-fired power plants such as the proposed Highwood Generation Plant near Great Falls, the demise of which has sparked many of this session’s anti-environment bills.

In reality, it’s not Montana’s political leaders who deserve praise on Earth Day this year, but our citizens. They’re the ones who continue to hold dear the promises and guarantees of our constitution. Everywhere across Montana the local food movement is on the rise. Community gardens, once looked at as a way to help the less fortunate feed themselves, are now being built to provide local food for anyone willing to help grow it. Given the increasing number of food contamination issues in recent years, local food grown by local gardeners is now looked upon as safer and healthier than food coming from foreign countries or industrial farms.

Organic farming, too, has come into its own, despite fierce opposition from industry giants like Monsanto and Dow Chemical. As Americans become ever more aware of the implications of healthy eating to a healthy life, the ideas of crossing animal and plant genes, dowsing your vegetables in pesticides or pumping up poultry and meat with growth hormones has come under much closer scrutiny. The penultimate question now being asked by millions of Americans is, “Why should I or my family eat chemically drenched, genetically modified industrial foods?”

On a global scale, the increasingly visible effects of climate change and a warming Earth are likewise moving millions of people to do what they can to help slow the destruction of the planet by buying smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, recycling materials and conserving energy and water whenever possible.

On this Earth Day, and especially in Montana, it is the people, not the politicians, who are leading the way forward to the more sustainable future envisioned so many years ago. We can only hope that one day the politicians will finally follow that lead.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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