Dave Hadden is coordinator of the Montana Wilderness Association‘s Transboundary Organizing Project, which works to link wildland conservation across the U.S. – Canada boundary in the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem. The Glacier – Waterton International Peace Park forms the wild heart of this ecoregion.

Monday, 3 Jun 2002

BIGFORK, Mont.

I live and work in Flathead County, U.S.A., where I strive as an environmental professional to change the political climate of this conservative community set in the magnificent mountains of the Crown of the Continent. If I have a single goal in my work, it is to “Restore the good name of conservation in the magnificent Flathead.”

Politics affects the Montana environment like no other “source point” of pollution. Sometimes Montanans bless themselves with enlightened social leadership (including environmental leadership), and sometimes they do not. At the dawn of this new millennium, Montanans have chosen, by majority vote, to return to the Dark Ages. However, tomorrow in Flathead County, the voters will go to the polls, where they will have an opportunity to reverse the backward slide. Ballots will be cast in the primary election for county commissioner.

Why is this local race so important? Because around here, county government both sets the political tone and affects things on the ground — things like subdivisions, industrial development, and new roads and bridges. It also affects water quality and wildlife by issuing or denying permits or as a secondary consequence of other political decisions. In Flathead County, the incumbent commissioner, Dale Williams, has used his position to champion unbridled property rights and to urge on right-wing extremists. Williams has effectively used his office to block the voice of conservationists in Flathead County. Hence the upcoming race has important long-term consequences for the regional environment.

Flathead County has slowly emerged as a hotbed of right-wing rhetoric and action. Traditional industries like logging, milling, and lumber production have fallen off sharply. Hard-working people have lost well-paying jobs and are looking for ways to stay in the beautiful country that has nurtured their families, sometimes for several generations. The changes and loss of work have engendered much fear and finger-pointing. No other group of citizens has been more blamed that those who call themselves environmentalists.

Much of the change in Flathead County has been spurred along by industry, business people, and retirees. Industry has done so by cutting timber faster than it can grow, by automating mills, and by promoting free trade that has led to the softwood lumber dispute with Canada and the closing of mills and the loss of jobs. Business in general has promoted Montana as the “Last of the Big Time Splendors,” a slogan that has lured thousands of souls out of distant cities to Montana, tempted by the clear, sunny summer days, clean water, and abundant wildlife and wilderness just out the back door. The good life. The Western life. A large percentage of Flathead County income is “transfer income” — pension, retirement, and wealth income transferred into Montana from out-of-state accounts.

There’s a joke we tell around here: “How do you make a small fortune in Montana?” Answer: Come here with a large one. And many do come here with fortunes. Those on the downside of the old economy are often angered or disgusted by the affluence shown by the newcomers on the upside of the new economy.

In any place of major social and economic change, there are those ready to take advantage of new opportunities — sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. The Flathead is no different.

Earth Day in Flathead County. Karen Nichols.

Photo: Karen Nichols.

That picture you’re looking at is of Flathead County’s right-wing radio station (KGEZ) host getting set to burn a “Green Swastika” in front of his studio on Earth Day, 2002. An estimated 300 citizens of Flathead County (including children and youth) attended this anti-environmentalist rally. I submit this image to you as the picture worth a thousand words to describe the political climate being propagated here in the Flathead, with the blessing of our current county commission.

In the coming days, I will describe my work with the Montana Wilderness Association in the context of this political and social environment. To be sure, the rhetoric and actions of the right wing do not represent the majority of the good people of this beautiful place. Yet as in other places in the United States, political apathy and intimidation combine to give this element a stronger, louder voice than they would otherwise have.

That is why tomorrow, at the stroke of 7 a.m. I will be at the polls casting my vote to change the current course of history in the beautiful Flathead.