The governor is a politician of such breathtaking dexterity, ability, and raw, hungry, political instinct that your first thought upon witnessing him — no matter whether you’re a Republican or Democrat — is likely to be, “When does he explode, and in what manner?” For rarely in American politics has anyone this good been that way indefinitely.

Brian Schweitzer has only been the governor of Montana for a year, but already, among Democrats in the state and beyond, I sense a Clintonesque déjà vu creeping in, a relief that all will be all right, that our values are protected. We are not considering how fast and bright such stars burn.

As was Clinton, Schweitzer is incredibly likeable — he seems sometimes to be leaning forward on his toes, beaming in advance of an audience’s appreciation — but while Clinton was often guilty of working over-hard to placate his enemies, it’s easier to envision Schweitzer responding with a real bristle factor when someone gets in his face, tries to be a bully or a malcontent, disruptive of a project that builds economic or community or social strength. Schweitzer single-handedly trounced the Republican Party in 2004, not just driving them from the capitol, but leading the charge to regain the state House and Senate as well — but, bridge builder that he is, he chose state Sen. John Bohlinger, a progressive Republican, as his running mate.

The new governor displays a flair for visual, even cinematic, politics, and Montanans have become accustomed to above-the-fold photos of him knocking back a shot of sunlit amber whiskey to celebrate the 10 a.m. reopening of a historic bar in Butte, or popping a cork to celebrate the initial stages in the removal of a dam on the Clark Fork River. Already, there seems no end to the roll call of his greatest hits, and no lessening of his appetite for (or ability to provide) them.

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He is remaking, in that fashion, Montana political culture — and, argue his strongest supporters, he would also be able to remake the entire country’s image, at this critical stage of necessary self-repair, were his job ever to become that of chief executive.

To his great credit, Schweitzer has sought to almost scornfully diminish such enthusiasms, as if sensing that they might disrupt the business of running what is a very small state, population-wise — a state that just happens to be the size of, and possesses far more natural resources than, many European nations.

Big Sky, Big Ideas

One of the most fractious and polarized issues in Montana concerns her greatest wealth, and greatest passion. Buffeted by years of abuses from multinational extractive industries — whose influence has made federal lands in Western states little more than resource colonies for subsidized exports, employing local workers tenuously through the rhythmic pulse of boom and bust — rural economies have been irradiated of ingenuity and suppleness. The machinations of big corporations have built in these small towns, over the years, a culture of polarization and oppression in which new ideas were discouraged, as was the preservation of wild country. The big companies have not been good to Montana, but I want to believe Schweitzer can bring something new to the issue.

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The wild acres of the Yaak Valley.

Photo: Randy Beacham.

Already, environmentalists around the region are being put through the wringer by his actions on this front. He has deftly handled the issue of keeping the national forests’ last roadless areas intact thus far, though he has been hanging fire on developing a wilderness strategy. Heartbreakingly, he has shown a keen interest in helping develop a huge silver mine beneath Montana’s Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, in critical grizzly-bear habitat. But he’s also gone to the mat to fight a giant coal mine just across the border in Canada, which would despoil Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley.

Following the honeymoon, environmentalists are starting to wake up to the hard fact that just because their new leader is a Democrat doesn’t mean he won’t break a few eggs — even sacred-cow eggs. He’s not entirely controllable, and in that whiff of political wildness lies also a hint of progressives’ hope and possible salvation.

I’m convinced you can’t handle or control a politician of such quicksilver, pure force, but I also believe that if you play the issues on the straight and level, and present enough disparate and politically useful moving parts, and then keep them on the table long enough to examine, an intelligent politician will find a way to assemble those parts into a model very much like the one you’ve proposed. He or she may put a few bells and whistles on it, and change its name, but form will follow function, and if you can design the project to accommodate the social and economic and ecological goals espoused by that leader — well, I trust him or her to build that package and then become its cheerleader. (And what a cheerleader Schweitzer can be — he could sell sand in the desert.)

To a large extent, I think, environmentalists around the country can watch the relationship that develops between Schweitzer and Montana environmentalists and begin to pick up clues about what will work, and what won’t, with the new breed of Democrat he represents. Not quite centrists and not quite populists — call them Homebody Democrats, muscular as hell, and intelligent too. The game is interesting, again.

Lost in the Wilderness

About that honeymoon: A year’s not a very long time, and in the words of Hal Harper, Schweitzer’s chief policy adviser, “You have to understand, it’s like [coming into office and] trying to drink from a fire hose.” Of all the battles here — over clear-cuts, loss of species, pollution of drinking water, the world’s worst asbestos contamination, rampant subdivision of and subsequent loss of public access to the big open country of Montana’s culture — most impassioned of all have been the fights over wilderness.

Since the 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act, the benefits of such designation have been well chronicled. Even amidst the extreme partisanship of the last 15 years, numerous states have passed federal wilderness legislation with bipartisan support, leaving finally only the ironclad Republican bastion of Idaho and the curious case of Montana — with 6.4 million eligible acres across nine national forest lands, and more still administered by the Bureau of Land Management — as the last two Western states that have not advanced a statewide wilderness-protection bill.

Over the decades, this issue, in Montana, has become a political killing field, affecting — ridiculously — everything from local school board elections to powerful county commissioner posts to governorships and U.S. House and Senate races. Our current Democratic senator, Max Baucus, eased into this rite of political passage in the 1980s in my corner of the state, the extreme (and heavily forested) northwest corner known as the Yaak. Along with fellow Democratic Sen. John Melcher, he supported a wilderness plan crafted by local environmentalists and mill workers that passed the Senate, but was pocket-vetoed by Ronald Reagan just before the election. The whole debacle contributed to a Republican upstart named Conrad Burns defeating the incumbent Melcher.

Burns has served ever since, and become known for, among other things, his rough and often derogatory speech toward minority constituencies. He’s made the League of Conservation Voters’ “Dirty Dozen” list. And he is no fan of wilderness, comparing our wild forests to nothing more than cornfields in need of cutting. Meanwhile, the Yaak — despite possessing roughly one million of the wildest acres in Montana — has never been home to a single acre of designated wilderness, in 41-plus years of trying.

We’ve come close. In 1994, Democratic Rep. Pat Williams — just after Montana shifted from two representatives to one, due to census reapportionment — included more than 100,000 acres of Yaak wilderness as part of a statewide wilderness bill that passed the House with more than 300 votes of huge bipartisan support, only to see Baucus and Burns fail to agree on a Senate version. At this point the new paradigm was cast: the wilderness bill not as political football in Montana, but as cudgel or snare — a way to get the other guy.

In an effort to try to reverse the old paradigm of war and defeat, hate and bitterness, our own little group, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, has spent the last several years constructing an economic development plan for our impoverished county that would bring great political glory to whichever politicians are able to implement it. Rather than trying to build a better mousetrap, we’ve been trying to figure out a way to simply feed the mice — and ourselves. We’ve come to the decision that a place-based, community-supported wilderness bill is a better way to break this decades-old logjam, and that the fractious Yaak, completely unserved by the wilderness bills of the past, is the most challenging and ecologically most vital place to start.

Maybe This Time

We’ve assembled what we think is a smart package — one that meets the needs of a disparate range of the stakeholders scattered across this vast forest. The bill would provide for increased thinning of small-diameter trees around human communities, and purchase private industrial timberlands to manage locally as a community forest while preserving traditional community access, rather than seeing them sold off into one- and five- and 10-acre shark bites that pain all of us here in this deeply rural county. It would provide for greater stewardship contracting on public-lands forestry projects, with receipts retained by the county for restoring watersheds and funding our deeply underserved rural school system. It would also identify certain wildlands for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System, while codifying some existing snowmobile play areas — giving them, as long as various wildlife concerns are met, the same assurance of permanence that wilderness users seek.

In short, the bill creates incentives for different groups in this most polarized corner of the state to come together to support each other’s issues, so that their own needs might be met. In fact, our group had succeeded in negotiating an informal verbal agreement with all the various users before we had the rug pulled out from under us by the U.S. Senate.

The Kootenai National Forest, where the Yaak lies, is currently revising its 15-year operating plan. In that plan, local Forest Service specialists identified and recommended a few lands in the Yaak deserving wilderness designation. Not enough, but a few. Reliable reports have come to us, from local political leaders as well as from Forest Service officials, including the supervisor, that Burns went to the Forest Service supervisor and threatened him with funding cuts if there was any recommended wilderness in the new plan. So the supervisor promptly pulled all recommended wilderness — wildly inflaming the state’s environmentalists, and damaging the local discussions that we had been nurturing, and which we continue to try to resuscitate.

The action by the senator and the Forest Service didn’t just disrupt the place-setting our local groups had been laboring to make at the table, it broke the plates.

Baucus has sent a draft of our local bill to legislative counsel, but has said he won’t get involved with the issue, so we’re hoping Schweitzer will — if for no other reason than to protect himself in advance of the next really bad fire season. Recently, the fires have been coming in six-year cycles, like senators: 1988, 1994, and 2000. Being able to point at a community showcase project such as this would allow him and others who support it to say, as the fires rage, “I wasn’t caught flat-footed on this — here are measures I enacted.”

The plan certainly fits Schweitzer’s campaign slogan of bringing a “New Day” to Montana, based on common-sense solutions at the local level, bridge building, bipartisanship, collaboration, and all those other political words and abstractions, which could, we maintain, still be made real. He’s also not afraid to tangle with Burns — he nearly beat him in 2000, back before the Republican scandals.

Burns himself is on the hot seat, having received more campaign donations from recently indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his cohorts than any U.S. senator. Because we’ve crafted the proposed bill to meet the needs of all stakeholders, and because it’s timber-heavy, and because local snowmobile clubs support it, it seems like the perfect bill for Burns to pick up and run with, with Baucus and Republican Rep. Dennis Rehberg as cosponsors.

If it happens to have some wilderness in it, well, what delicious irony, and bragging rights, for the politicians — Democratic or Republican — who fashion, and pass, the first Montana wilderness bill in over 20 years. As a storyteller, I love the idea of Burns, who came to office over a failed wilderness bill, completing the cycle of life to become the first to finally pass one.

Shh … Do You Hear That?

Burns’ support and cosponsorship of the bill might be well-advised — speaking of the circularity of things — in light of the fact that his likely Democratic challenger in 2006 might well embrace it first. That challenger is a crew-cut eastern Montanan, and sudden golden child of many progressives, named Jon Tester.

Tester, who has served as president of the state Senate, would have to defeat fellow Democrat John Morrison — who, like Burns, boasts superior financing — in the primary this June to face Burns. Despite those odds, hopes are riding on him. Interestingly, despite the green credibility garnered by the conversion of his family’s farm to an organic operation, the energy surrounding his campaign is not environmentally driven. Instead, it seems fueled by general idealism, the desire for a certain cleanness and integrity.

The high-dollar organic grains are about as wild and crazy, as progressive, as Tester gets, which seems to be just about the amount Montanans are pining for these days: not the regressive howlings of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” politics, and not the old-school progressivism of politicians like Williams, yet. Like Schweitzer, Tester is homegrown; he knows that guns in Montana are not the same as guns in the inner city. Maybe a word for these new Montana Democrats might be transgressive — easing, edging, into the future, and moving, finally, out of the past, even as they carry certain useful and beloved elements of it with them.

Whoever emerges from the spring primary should have an interesting shot, given the Montana tilt toward the Democratic Party, and the negative ratings of Burns, who, this year more than ever, has a reputation as a bridge burner. The latter tack will always be able to rally a certain core constituency, but what if — after 20 years — he is behind the times, and Montanans decide they would rather build bridges than burn them?

Being a quasi-misanthropic backwoods hermit, it’s quite possible I’m a good 20 years behind any zeitgeist myself. But in my travels and discussions, it seems to me that many Americans are hungry for something authentic, desiring it with an intensity that goes beyond craving and approaches heartsick desperation. It is an unspoken yearning, almost a kind of prayer. Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for speaking of a national malaise back in the late ’70s, as Reagan’s Me Generation began to stir, but I sense something similar in intensity, but opposite in content, now. I sense it the way you can sense an animal moving in the woods, before you see or hear or smell that animal. Somehow — almost as if in a dream, at first — you come to know it’s out there.

Was Schweitzer’s victory just one of those wacky blips, a political anomaly? Or is Montana the tip of the iceberg, tip of the tip, precursor of the possible tipping point — the first emergence, the nascent reawakening, of prairie populism, a long-dormant or absent confluence of anger and idealism, hunger, fear, and general pissed-offedness?

We’ll get a good sense of such things here in red-state America soon.