Who's afraid of EVST? 

The University of Montana's Environmental Studies program has graduated some of the state's most effective advocates. So why do lawmakers want to see it gutted?

There’s a rowdy mythology surrounding the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, better known as EVST. But very little of that mythology is revealed in the cramped, modest rooms of the program’s home in Jeannette Rankin Hall. There are no ropes or shit buckets for tree-sitters, no spikes destined for old growth Douglas firs, not even a dog-eared copy of Edward Abbey’s Hayduke Lives! lying around. The halls and walls of UM’s most controversial program—at least during this legislative session—betray little of its radical reputation.

The sole clues that this is EVST’s home and not the English or philosophy department are two pictures hanging outside program director Tom Roy’s office. One, an old campaign poster, features a picture of an idyllic alpine scene with the words “Montana. It’s ours…Let’s fight for it!” in a bold, white, font. The other, a yellowed newspaper photo, depicts one of the program’s founders, Clancy Gordon, dressed as Moses descending from Mount Sinai and holding the “Ten Commandments of Environmentalism.” Both have been recently dug up from the basement, framed and placed by Roy.

“There’s certainly a persona that has grown up here,” says Roy, turning to face Gordon. “You wouldn’t see anybody at Yale going out and dressing up in a cleric’s robe and reading the ‘Ten Commandments of the Environment.’”

Roy turns again and takes a moment to consider the beauty of the alpine scene.

“One has to remember that this is the environment that this program got started in,” he says referring perhaps to both Gordon and the untouched mountain peak. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Montana led the nation in passing environmental legislation, down to the new Constitution that gave the right to a clean, healthy environment.”

In many ways, today’s Montana is a different state than the one swept by reform in 1972, when the Montana Constitution was rewritten. In 2003, some members of the Legislature and the industrial community believe that changes over the past three decades—specifically the rise of legally savvy conservation organizations—have hurt the state. When pro-industry boosters look to cast blame for a faltering economy, they look directly at EVST.

Two months ago, in a surprise move, mining, timber and construction lobbyists urged the Legislature to curtail state funding for EVST because they felt the program was damaging the state’s economy. The lobbyists say the program promotes anti-industry activism and teaches a curriculum that puts barriers between extractive industries and the natural resources they need to thrive financially.

One lobbyist, Angela Janacaro of the Montana Mining Association, testified to the House Appropriations Committee that the program was “insidious.”

The lobbyists cited EVST and university connections to the Global Justice Action Summit held last summer in opposition to the annual G8 summit, which was held in Calgary last year. EVST professor Vikki Watson was one of the local summit’s organizers and the university contributed $2,000—none of which drew from state funds, says UM president George Dennison.

A second lobbyist complaint centered on a 1996 continuing education course in which students gathered signatures and campaigned for two initiatives—I-122 and I-125. Janacaro said if the initiatives had gone into effect, mining companies would have suffered fiscally.

Lobbyist concerns sparked questions by state lawmakers. Sen. John Esp (R-Big Timber) wanted the university and the program to explain their involvement in the summit and the initiative campaigns. He also spoke of a disconnect between the university system and the state’s citizens. Suggestions of such a disconnect were echoed by industry lobbyists. But president Dennison doesn’t see any evidence that UM is out of step with the rest of the state.

“Read the Constitution,” says Dennison. “The Montana Constitution is famous for its guarantee of environmental quality.” Dennison does however think that questions about the university budget are appropriate.

“How money is spent…Well, that’s a legitimate question,” he says.

Since lobbyists and lawmakers raised concerns, Dennison and Roy have done all they can to provide the appropriate information, they say. Dennison even ran an independent audit of EVST’s budget. It looked as if the matter was well on its way to going away.

But a few weeks later, in typically bland room 102 of the Capitol building, the House Appropriations Committee met to do its job of dividing up the shrinking pie that is the Montana state budget. Committee member Rep. John Witt (R-Carter)—one of the legislators who, along with Esp, had raised questions about the funding behind programs peripherally connected to EVST—proposed a simple amendment to House Bill 2. He wanted to divert $800,000 from the university system budget to fund students at the dental hygiene program at MSU-Great Falls and the Montana Library Commission. The amendment passed 11-6 with little fanfare.

It was only after the meeting, when Witt spoke to the press, that he revealed the motive behind his amendment. He divulged to the media that the move was meant as a “symbolic” attack on the EVST program, and that the $800,000 represented approximately the two-year budget of the program. Witt described EVST as “very disgusting.”

The move was only symbolic, because the governor-appointed Board of Regents, not the Legislature, decides how to divvy up higher education funding. The Board was set up as an autonomous body by the Montana Constitution to keep issues like course offerings out of the political arena.

But the next day room 102 was overtaken by emotion. Witt’s comments had not gone unreported, and an angry Rosie Buzzas (D-Missoula) and Christine Kaufmann (D-Helena) requested a “conceptual” amendment to add wording to House Bill 2 praising EVST and its contributions to the state in a symbolic attempt to counter Witt’s symbolic attack.

“I think we all have a responsibility to be honest and open and not put something through in a spirit of deception,” Buzzas said, directing her comment at what she sees as Witt’s delusive amendment. “We don’t want to legislate in the press…I think that it was ethically and morally wrong.”

A dispassionate Witt responded by describing the proposed Kaufmann amendment as without merit, adding that he has harbored concerns about the program since last session.

A shaky-voiced Kaufmann asked Witt to apologize. He did not.

“It’s because of that program that I am here in the Legislature today,” said Kaufmann, an EVST graduate. “Maybe that’s reason enough for you to try and destroy it. But I’m sick and tired over the kinds of attacks that have taken place against that program.”

Kaufmann’s amendment was voted down 11-8. The room began to cool and the committee meeting went on.

A few days later the hallways of the Capitol buzz with lawmakers, lobbyists and pages. Rep. Ron Erickson (D-Missoula) stops for a moment to provide perspective on the controversy. He wasn’t at the House Appropriations meeting, but he’s in a unique position to explain the precarious relationship between the Environmental Studies program and the Legislature. While Erickson has spent the last six years as a state representative, he served as the EVST program director from 1976 to 1984.

“It’s really not new,” he says with a wry smile. “But this time they are just grasping at straws.”

Erickson remember when he—as the program director and a professor of chemistry—would be called to Helena by legislators to testify on some bill that would affect water or air quality. He says there were pervasive feelings of “What is he doing over here?” and “people that know stuff ought not come.” Some of these sentiments, he says, haven’t changed in two decades. The EVST program, however, has.

In the mid-’70s Erickson recalls running EVST out of his busy UM chemistry lab. He remembers the few disaffected scientists who established the program on a clichéd but self-evident principle: Save the planet by getting out there and doing something. It’s a principle by which current director Roy says he still helms the ship.

Founded in 1969, EVST began its life not as an academic program, but as a sort of informational library to help explain heady environmental issues to the layperson. Soon enough, the faculty realized it made sense to start an interdisciplinary program to allow students the chance to merge science and public policy.

“Our job is to build upon the traditional academic disciplines and to explain scientific knowledge to people to help them participate in the democratic process,” says Roy. “Today we are flooded with scads and scads of information. How do you make sense of that and get back the Jeffersonian notion that it’s the middle class American citizen that should be making decisions?”

Like the nondescript hallways housing the program, there is little in the program’s course listings to suggest the radicalism with which it’s been associated. There’s “Environmental Ethics” and “Environmental Policy,” “Restoration Ecology” and “Literature of Natural History.”

“It’s not the case, as some people have alleged, that we’re teaching people how to spike trees or jump off bridges and hoist themselves off logging trucks,” says president Dennison. “That’s not what it’s all about.”

And in fairness, Rep. Witt has not accused the program of monkeywrenching.

He has accused the program of state-funded advocacy, and the courses most ripe for that criticism, Roy thinks, are the activism classes. To fulfill their degree requirement, students must take one of the following: “Environmental Organizing,” “Citizen Participation,” “Building Effective Environmental Organizations,” “Watershed Conservation” or an approved internship. The overriding theme is teaching students how to get people involved.

There is no agenda, no value judgement, says Roy. And when hard-pressed, he admits that the knowledge taken from “Building Effective Environmental Organizations” could just as easily be used to set up, say, a pro-industry Bonner Development Group as a pro-river Clark Fork Coalition. What, in particular, one does with the education is less important, Roy says, than the spur to get involved in the process.

“As a public institution, we’ve always felt that our graduates have a responsibility to take what they’ve learned and use it to advance the opportunity for citizens to participate in those processes whereby quality of life decisions are made,” he says.

But even with Roy’s insistence that the program is about making democracy work better, there are critics who think EVST’s goal is to circumvent democracy. Roy points to an incident of tree spiking that occurred in Idaho during the late ’80s. Suspicion landed quickly on EVST students and the FBI joined in the investigation. Some faculty and students were subpoenaed by a grand jury, but no charges were ever brought against anyone connected to the program. Years later, the true culprit was caught—someone with no connection to EVST. By the time the arrest was made, the issue had been forgotten, but EVST’s alleged involvement had not, says Roy.

But Roy takes the complaints with a grain of salt. He can see why the general public would tend to associate the program with the radical, illegal activism of Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang instead of ho-hum letter-writing campaigns and the organization of volunteers.

“At a cultural level, Edward Abbey is the classic loner romantic,” he says. “What’s appealing about Abbey is that he’s thumbing his nose at society.”

But it’s not the Abbey mythology that creates public relations problems with state legislators and lobbyists so much as the ways in which a handful of graduates have put their degrees to practical use. “Our graduates have gone out and taken leadership positions that have in some cases been to the left of mainstream conservation organizations,” he says.

In fact, EVST students have gone on to form some of Montana’s most aggressively outspoken environmental groups—Wildlands CPR, the Ecology Center and the Native Forest Network. Students have also been involved in high-profile timber sale protests, but not under university sponsorship, says Roy.

Others alumni have gone on to work with or found more mainstream organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society and Women’s Voices for the Earth. Clark Fork Coalition executive director Tracy Stone-Manning, Sierra Club president Jennifer Ferenstein and even Mark O’Keefe—former Democratic nominee for governor—all studied in the tiny Jeannette Rankin rooms.

Then there are the few who decide to work for industry. These are the graduates who give EVST supporters their greatest rebuff to lawmakers and lobbyists who complain the program is ruining Montana’s economy.

“If you look at graduates, several of them are working in places that, if you believed everything that’s been said, they couldn’t possibly be working at,” says Dennison. “There’s a young lady who is working at Roseburg for air quality. If [the industry lobbyists’] arguments were right, she’d be shutting down that place.”

But whatever the critics says, Roy insists that there is no monotype of an EVST student.

“I have pretty thick skin, but if you strip that away, at a personal level the thing that I’ve been most upset about at the Legislature is this tendency to create a caricature of what EVST is and what EVST students are,” he says.

Roy also complains that he was never approached by his detractors, nor was president Dennison. Instead the lobbyists took the issue straight to the Legislature. When no one stops by to see what the program is all about, stereotypes get propagated and the idea that there is no single genus of EVST student is lost.

“The one thing they have in common is that they are idealists, that they believe there can be a better world, and they’re romantics, they believe they can make difference,” he says. “The lesson that the university, this state and higher education has to take from EVST has next to nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with the fact that we’ve provided a place, a niche, a space for such students.”

As for the specific allegation that the EVST program hurts Montana’s economy, Roy calls the claim “hogwash.”

“We’re not about to destroy Montana’s economy, but we are concerned about practices that violate laws.”

Rep. Witt emerges from room 102 and crosses the hall headed to another meeting. It’s been weeks since he was grilled by Buzzas and Kaufmann and the issue seems to have died down. A proposed meeting between Witt and Roy has yet to be scheduled, a threat by Buzzas to refer Witt to the House ethics board has yet to bear fruit, and Witt hasn’t said much to the press. After half a dozen unreturned phone calls, he’s ambushed and confronted with questions about his views on EVST and the funding swap.

“There are two issues here,” he says. “And I’m not going to address anything with the Kaufmann issue. I think that issue should be dropped.”

Witt will briefly address his thoughts concerning the program’s accountability. He still isn’t satisfied with the school’s explanation of its accounting. He says that he’s requested financial records from the university and the commissioner of higher education. Both university lobbyist Bill Johnson and the commissioner’s office have said that they will provide the information—but it hasn’t been delivered yet, Witt says.

“At this point the information that I’ve received leaves it pretty open,” Witt says. “I will tell you that I have looked at the Environmental Studies program for the last two years.”

He adds that there is yet another university program that he is “looking at,” but won’t reveal which one. Witt concludes by saying that he thinks the $800,000 is better spent on MSU’s dental hygiene program and the Montana Library Commission before a fellow representative pulls on his coat sleeve—“John, we need you upstairs.”

Mining lobbyist Angela Janacaro isn’t in such a hurry. She’s happy to sit down and discuss her client’s position. In the two months since she and her peers first raised the issue, she seems to have moved away from her initial hard-line stance.

“Certainly, we don’t want the program closed,” says Janacaro. But she does have questions. Was state money used for the Global Justice Action Summit? Or for a trip to the G8? What about the class to gather signatures for the two initiatives?

Both Roy and Dennison have answered these questions publicly—several times—with a resounding “No.”

But even if state money wasn’t used, Janacaro remains unsure that EVST’s involvement was appropriate. Like a true ecologist, she speaks to the interconnectedness of everything.

“It’s a big circle,” she says. “Mining in this state is a tremendous taxpayer and it supports the university system to a large degree. When you cut down the activities of mining and diminish their activity in the state, you’re basically increasing tuition costs, cutting funding for the university, cutting programs. It’s a big circle. It’s all related.”

Like Witt, Janacaro sees the matter as unsettled. She says the Montana Mining Association has requested an audience with the Board of Regents, but as yet, nothing has been scheduled.

But even if the two sides are able to sit down and discuss the appropriateness of any particular bit of classroom funding, the larger conflict remains.

There have always been questions from politicians about what’s appropriate to teach: a biology professor running down creationism; a psychology professor teaching students that homosexuality is genetic. From someone’s point of view there is always an agenda.

“There are always these issues,” says Dennison. “I hear as many or more comments about [UM economics department chair] Tom Powers as I do about Tom Roy, and an equal number about [UM law professor] Rob Natelson.”

The question is one of balance. Dennison recalls the 1999 controversy when a sociology professor invited White supremacist Matt Hale to speak to a class. The president was supportive of the idea as long as there was a chance for dialogue, a give and take. It couldn’t be just one point of view.

Janacaro is also in favor of balance, but to her this means bringing the EVST agenda closer to her definition of center. She points to the EVST Web site, which provides links to the Clark Fork Coalition, the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Montana Wilderness Association and others. She wonders where the links are to the Montana Wood Products Association or the Western Environmental Trade Association or even her own Montana Mining Association.

“Certainly any of us who involve ourselves in any of the natural resource industries consider ourselves as much of an environmentalist as anybody involved in the Environmental Studies program,” she says. “Education is supposed to be grounded in both sides of an issue. This isn’t.”

But it happens that Janacaro’s environmentalist livelihood may feel threatened by EVST’s environmentalist activism. In any case, Witt, Esp and industry lobbyists point out that their tax dollars fund a program that doesn’t support their values—the values, they claim, of Montana.

“I think that that’s just political rhetoric,” says Rep. Kaufmann. “I think that the Environmental Studies program represents a segment of Montana, just as the mining industries represent a segment. I don’t think you can claim that any particular course of study is outside the values of Montanans. I think Montanans value education and learning and critical thinking and I think that’s right in line with the program.”

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