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

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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.”

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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.

Tuesday, 4 Jun 2002

BIGFORK, Mont.

Peace Park Plus is an international campaign to more than double the size of Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and, with Glacier National Park in Montana, complete the world’s first International Peace Park. If you do nothing else today, spend 10 minutes on your computer and send a fax to the premier of British Columbia and the prime minister of Canada in support of this important proposal. It’s easy and almost automatic. If every reader of this diary does so, you will have advanced this project significantly.

A map of the proposed Peace Park.

Part of the trick to being an environmental professional in Flathead County is finding ways to communicate the environmental values that the local population can’t seem to grasp. People say they live here because of the incredible blessings of nature in the Flathead — clean water, abundant wildlife, grizzly bears, hunting, fishing, kayaking, sailing, canoeing, bird watching, etc., etc. But when they vote, whether it be for Governor Judy “I’m a Lapdog for Industry” Martz, or Sen. Conrad “Tax and Spend for Big Business” Burns (R), or for our local county commissioner, they vote for despoilers of their homes. The disconnection between values and votes is real and disturbing. My job, as I see it, is to bridge that gap, helping people to understand their values and act accordingly. To best do that job, I have set a goal of talking to at least one group per week that is outside my “comfort zone.”

An example: Yesterday evening, I donned fresh clothes and a newly mown face and drove into Kalispell (population 13,000), the county seat of Flathead County, where I had an appointment with the city council. My objective was to get the council to endorse the proposed expansion of Waterton Lakes National Park. The opportunity was doubly important because council meetings are broadcast live over the local T.V. station. Therefore, my plug for Peace Park Plus would reach nine local decision-makers and a host of invisible souls connected via satellite down-link.

As I told the council members, Peace Park Plus is important for a number of reasons. Establishing it will add more than 100,000 acres to Waterton Lakes National Park in the Flathead River drainage of British Columbia. It will also protect the habitat of grizzly bears that travel across the international border seasonally, preserve the single most important basin for carnivores in the Rocky Mountains, and ensure the water quality of the North Fork of the Flathead River, which forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park.

Though the council was unable to immediately endorse my request, they did take it under advisement. In the past, the council would have qualified as neutral, or even as an opponent to conservation initiatives. However, by crossing the comfort zone (seeking support outside of traditional allies), I found several council members who were extremely enthusiastic and supportive. I will be able now to go back to these individuals and help them convince the entire council to endorse this proposal. Also significant, my own organization, the Montana Wilderness Association, gained credibility with the council by demonstrating the non-partisan nature of conservation.

Wednesday, 5 Jun 2002

BIGFORK, Mont.

News flash! It’s official: Election returns are in for Flathead County, Mont. Dale Williams, incumbent Flathead County Commissioner, supporter of KGEZ (hate) radio, tax delinquent, bane of environmentalists, and nemesis of land planning, zoning, and conservative forest management, has been defeated in the Republican primary by a very healthy margin. Republican candidate Gary Hall, mayor of Columbia Falls (Williams’s hometown) defeated Williams 4,561 to 3,397. A third republican candidate, Carl Talsma, garnered 1,980 votes. Williams effectively lost by 3,144 votes out of a total of 9,938 votes cast, or by 35 percent. This was a landslide vote against Williams and for change.

Those of you reading this from urban centers around the world may find it inconceivable that 1,980 votes can make a difference. Of course, George W. Bush slid into the White House on an even slimmer and highly questionable margin — and with an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court to boot. What a world of difference that “vote” has made! In Flathead County, our commissioners have an inordinate amount of influence over priceless national treasures like Glacier National Park. Williams’s loss at the voting booths means conservationists who guard this and other national assets have a voice once again.

One important national asset is winter quiet in U.S. national forests, an issue that will consume my time today. The Montana Wilderness Association has devoted substantial resources to its Quiet Trails Program under the direction of John Gatchell, MWA’s conservation director. In Flathead National Forest, conflict between snowmobiles, wildlife, and quiet winter recreation reached a point of impasse.

In 1985, the Flathead Forest agreed to limit motorized access to certain areas, but did nothing to enforce these restrictions. As the years went by, snowmobile use increased as the state of Montana established and funded snowmobile trails in the Flathead Forest, and as the machines grew more powerful. Eventually, snowmobiles invaded the high-elevation winter denning habitat of grizzly bears and wolverines, and the winter browsing habitat of deer, elk, and moose. The machines (or their users) were out of control and affecting important public resources, including plain old-fashioned back-country quiet.

A map of the proposed Peace Park.

In 1999, the Montana Wilderness Association sued the Flathead Forest for, essentially, breach of contract for allowing snowmobile use in areas that had been closed in 1985. In December 2001, the Wilderness Association settled the suit out of court through a comprehensive Winter Recreation Agreement negotiated with the Flathead Forest and the Montana Snowmobile Association.

The accompanying map illustrates the results of that settlement. Green represents areas open to snowmobiles; the off-white represents areas closed to snowmobiles. The settlement is important to conservationists across the state of Montana and anywhere that snowmobile use has disrupted wildlife or traditional quiet winter recreation. It’s also important because it demonstrates that a) conservationists and snowmobilers can settle their differences, b) National Forest managers must develop plans that set limits on the use of this winter toy, and c) the vast majority of Americans who do not own snowmobiles (97 percent in Flathead County alone) have a say in how the National Forests are used in winter.

Thursday, 6 Jun 2002

BIGFORK, Mont.

The local paper, the Daily Inter Lake, announced today its own corporate news on the front page: “Hagadone buys weekly newspapers in area.” In addition to the Inter Lake, Hagadone now owns seven other local weekly papers and one advertiser paper. Hagadone brags, “With the addition of these publications, we’ll be able to extend our reach in the region, provide more advertising options for our customers, and create growth opportunities for our new employees.” I draw your attention to what was not said: nothing about extending better or more comprehensive local news or opinion content. This is part of the conservation problem in Montana’s Flathead Valley.

Hagadone Newspapers is a subsidiary of the Hagadone Corporation, which counts large-scale metal mining among its other interests. In other words, it is a natural-resource based corporation which also happens to own an extensive media network. In still other words, it exerts considerable control over news and editorial content in the areas of its operations. According to The Myth of the Liberal Media, published by the Media Education Foundation , our problem here in Montana is actually a world-wide problem: news content owned and controlled by business interests that have something to gain from influencing public thought. At Hagadone, they call it “extending their reach.” How innocent. I would opt for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution providing a permanent separation of the Fourth Estate (the media) from other economic interests. Not a new idea, but certainly not one we can expect to hear advocated for in the Daily Inter Lake.

Nevertheless, I and other conservationists work with the local papers as best we can. We don’t expect to receive ringing endorsements for our projects and proposals. Yet the fact remains that media outlets, whether print, radio, or television, need some content. We do our best to take advantage of this need. A second and no less important fact is that people support conservation. People want to talk about it, read about it, and act on it. If only our local politicians would follow suit!

The Plum Creek Timber Company land divestiture will challenge the local conservation community’s media savvy. Recently Plum Creek announced it would divest itself of some 186,000 acres of corporate timberlands in western Montana in the Swan, Clearwater, and Upper Blackfoot river valleys. These names fully suggest the beauty and ecological significance of these regions. The sale affects entire landscapes, because Plum Creek plans to sell to anyone who will buy. New ranchettes and subdivisions could end up scattered across prime grizzly bear habitat. People and grizzlies don’t generally mix well, and contrary to what you might think, it’s the grizzly that always loses. This issue landed squarely on my plate because I sit on the board of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation initiative, or Y2Y for short. Y2Y works to conserve, protect, and reconnect core wild lands like national parks and wilderness areas in the more than 2,000 miles of land from Yellowstone Park to the Canadian Yulon. The Y2Y vision has helped regional conservation groups and agencies recognize the commonality of their work. The Plum Creek divestiture represents a new opportunity for cooperative goal-setting to achieve significant results on the ground.

Conservationists are laying ambitious plans for Plum Creek’s lands. We’d like to see a wholesale purchase of the entire 186,000 acres by Congressional appropriation. For one-one thousandth of the cost of a Stealth Bomber, the U.S. public could reacquire and make whole a landscape that industrial forest giant Plum Creek partly gutted over the past 25 years by clear cutting.

In a state with right-wing Republican representation in Congress (i.e. Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg), a Congressional appropriation of this magnitude seems like a hard sell. It is — hard, but not impossible. This may be a deal that Plum Creek would want as well. When all parties can agree to a concept, then the details (and the dollars) seem to be all that stand in the way of the hand shake. Today and over the coming months I will be working on this deal. It’ll be fun, interesting, take us down new pathways, and lead us to new friendships and associations. In the process, conservation will gain in stature and, who knows, maybe some day the Daily Inter Lake above-the-fold headline will read, “Conservationists and Plum Creek Settle on Landmark Deal.”

Friday, 7 Jun 2002

BIGFORK, Mont.

Waking up today — a beautiful spring day that dawned sunny, clear, and fresh — I need to pinch myself to be reminded that mining, logging, and commercial hunting had, at one time, devastated much of Montana. Active, progressive conservation salvaged almost every view I enjoy today. One can easily fool oneself into thinking that we in Montana live in an Eden that has always been as it is.

Last night on the way to a friend’s house for dinner, I got to see wild elk grazing in a field near the highway. Those elk were restored by conservation efforts from herds hunted almost to extinction. The geese and ducks I see fly overhead every morning as I leave for work have been recovered by a similar effort. The heavily forested and magnificent Swan Range that I view daily has been the center of a decades-long struggle between environmentalists and others. There’s scarcely a tree in the range that has not been defended by environmentalist like Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition, or the sacrifices of the Montana Wilderness Association’s Loren Kreck or Cliff Merritt. In fact, much of Montana’s “pristine” environment was salvaged or restored from the wreckage of the plunderers and profiteers of the last 200 years.

Conservation requires vigilance because our modern culture continues to demand more than the land can sustain. My organization, the Montana Wilderness Association has been at the work of active conservation since 1958. I have described various aspects of the association’s work over the past week, including efforts to enlarge Waterton Lakes National Park, the Quiet Trails program, and our role in the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

In the coming months, the Montana Wilderness Association will advance proposals for new Congressionally designated wilderness areas, fight to retain the advances made with the U.S. Forest Service Roadless Rule, and promote protection of important wildlands across the length and breadth of this great state. The Montana Wilderness Association is particularly adept at mustering local support for local places — places our 4,500 members know, love, and are committed to protecting from inappropriate uses.

One of the key challenges for me and my fellow conservationists in the Flathead Valley of Montana will be the restoration of conservation as a leading cause in our community. We are addressing this challenge by crossing boundaries to the ‘other side’ and talking to those who are neutral or undecided, and by making conservation fun, in addition to the hard work of simply holding the line against environmental loss and degradation.

If you happen to be planning a trip to Montana next year, think about showing up in my hometown of Bigfork on June 28, 2003. This little town on the edge of Flathead Lake will be hosting the second annual Flathead conservation festival, known as the Flathead Freshwater Festival. This all-day event will feature five bands, food, beverages, activities for kids of all ages, merchandise for sale, and, last but not least, information about caring for this place we call home.

Conservation should be important and accessible to everyone. Cheers to all of you in your efforts to sustain your corner of this wonderful world.